Niagara Gazette

March 5, 2013

BRADBERRY: Niagara's complex culinary history: stirring the pot, cooking the books

By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Talk to almost any senior Niagara Falls, New York resident with a good memory, or any expatriate, anyone who has moved away but who still harbors grand memories of their beloved, albeit forsaken hometown, inevitably the subject of fine cuisine arises.

Niagarans of every nationality from Asia, Europe, and Africa, or from New England to the Deep South, have fond memories of the good food that Niagara Falls was once, and will forever be famous for.

Stories about the recipes, the neighborhood aromas, the restaurants, the vegetable and spice gardens, the old City Market, the delicious fresh fish caught right out of the Niagara River or either of the Great Lakes and local streams here could fill a library.

One of the most fascinating stories that Oakwood Cemetery Board member, historian Michelle Kratts has uncovered so far about Niagara Falls’ culinary connection to history was revealed last month when, in a tribute to Black History Month, she wrote about the Hamilton Family and their connection to William Bell Fossett and his connection to Thomas Jefferson’s clearly contradictory and therefore, controversial multicultural, cross racial family ties.

Come on, how could he in good conscience claim that, “all men are created equal”, and at the same time, own slaves, and father at least six children by his African Mistress, Sally Hemings?

As Michelle Kratts might say, “That’s a story for another day!”

Anyway, apparently Mrs. Hamilton’s sister, Dorothy Condol was married to William Bell Fossett who, according to Kratts, “by 1860 the Fossett’s were in Niagara Falls—and William, like L.H.F. Hamilton, was a waiter at the Cataract Hotel.

Though, as Kratts admits, “connections have not been substantiated at this point in time” there may be other family connections between William Bell Fossett and L.H.F. Hamilton as Hamilton’s mother’s surname was “Bell” and Fossett’s middle name was also “Bell.” Another similarity involves the fact that they both resided in Washington, D.C., in their early years.

One thing is quite clear; they were the slaves of Thomas Jefferson.

When he became president, Jefferson moved to the White House and took William Bell Fossett’s mother away from her husband in order to learn French cooking.

Likely a waiter at the Cataract House, Fossett was in Niagara Falls as early as 1854 where, as Kratts notes, he had been “given charge of a hotel at Niagara Falls. Of course, their cooking skills were most likely gleaned from their mother, who had brought French cooking to America through Thomas Jefferson.”

Ok, now here’s where this particular story gets really interesting, if not twisted.

Last July Smithsonian.org, in their Food & Think column posted an article titled, “Meet Edith and Fanny, Thomas Jefferson’s Enslaved Master Chefs” which supports Thomas J. Craughwell’s book, “Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America.”

As described at Amazon.com, “This culinary biography recounts the 1784 deal that Thomas Jefferson struck with his slave, James Hemings. The founding father was traveling to Paris and wanted to bring James along “for a particular purpose”— to master the art of French cooking. In exchange for James’s cooperation, Jefferson would grant his freedom… Thus began one of the strangest partnerships in United States history.”

According to the article, “The two men returned home with such marvels as pasta, French fries, Champagne, macaroni and cheese, crème brûlée, and a host of other treats.”

Could this have been the genesis of “Mac & Cheese” as we know it today?

Noting that, “While Julia Child may have popularized French cuisine in America, she wasn’t the first to lend it prominence in our culinary culture—that credit goes to Thomas Jefferson, says the article.

Perhaps more precisely, credit should go to the slaves in Jefferson’s kitchen who were trained to cook in this style and were producing meals for 12-25 people every day of the year.”

Might this combination of French and African influenced Southern culinary have been the root of what we call “Soul Food” today?

Historian Leni Sorensen connects the dots between Hemings and Fossett, writing that Jefferson brought Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern to Washington and Monticello in 1862 aged15 and 18 respectively when they were tasked with cooking for the president until his death in 1826.

Naturally, Niagara’s culinary history goes all the way back to the pre-Colonial period; long before Europeans stumbled across this place, Natives had already mastered their own crops and developed their very own cuisine, some of which, like many others from around the world, especially India, is now available in Niagara Falls today. Of course, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, even the World Wars and other military conflicts also introduced new foods and flavors to the palates of the masses, many of whom still remember and crave their unique tastes; fortunately, skilled chefs can replicate some of those experiences, keeping that part of our heritage alive.

A menu that can successfully combine our culinary choices and preferences together with the amazing natural and social history of the region might just cook up a recipe that truly serves up some serious food for thought.

Hungry?

Contact Bill at bill.bradberry@yahoo.com