Black Marylanders have been at the forefront of shaping American food history. Their contributions include the man considered the first master chef in America, the inception of the catering industry, and the invention of the crab grading system.
“You cannot define Maryland food without paying attention to the enormous contributions that African American taste and culture brought to the table,” said Joyce White, an Annapolis-based independent food historian.
The foundation of early Maryland cuisine is a combination of multiple cultural influences: Native American, European and African, according to White.
The African influence on Maryland cuisine comes in “many different layers,” White said.
The descendants of Africans shaped the ways that recipes were made, according to White. They utilized foods that were brought over from Africa — such as collard greens and sweet potatoes — and also made the most out of meager rations that they were given, using them to invent stuffed ham.
Brooklyn-based food historian Tonya Hopkins, known on social media as “The Food Griot,” refers to the mid-Atlantic region of the country as the “birthplace of American cuisine.”
“It’s a perfect storm of ingredients: fertility of land, and labor force — talented people,” she said, noting they were often of African descent.
Hopkins said the culinary creativity of Black people with Maryland ties is extensive — but largely unknown.
For example, Maryland-born abolitionist Harriet Tubman, an enslaved woman who escaped to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849, was a skilled cook and baker, according to Hopkins.
“She cooked in Cape May and Philadelphia to help fund her freedom work,” Hopkins said. “There was no end to her talent.”
Maryland’s geographic location, combined with its sizeable freed Black population in the 19th century, account for it being prime for culinary advancements, according to David and Tonya Thomas, Baltimore-area caterers and restaurateurs who have also become respected Black food historians.
And although Maryland is known for its crabs and crab cakes, its contributions to food history extend far beyond that.
“There would be no American cuisine without African Americans. We certainly understand there would be no America without African Americans. If we can make that statement, we can certainly boil it down to food history,” David Thomas said.
The Thomases, who own The H3irloom Food Group, based in Belair-Edison, and have been behind restaurants such as Ida B’s Table and Herb & Soul Gastro Café & Lounge, became two of the foremost food historians in the state — by accident.
It started when Tonya Thomas was researching her family’s history in the state, which dates back to the early 1800s in Calvert County.
In 2013, she received an additional jolt of inspiration when food historian and James Beard Award-winning author Michael Twitty visited Herb & Soul Gastro Café & Lounge and offered encouraging words about their historical discoveries.
“At that time, he said, ‘You need to continue.’ And that was it,” Tonya Thomas recalled.
Since then, the two have delved deep into Maryland’s food history, exploring a number of little-known people, food inventions and cooking styles that have shaped the culinary landscape of Maryland and beyond.
“Our contributions in regards of food comes back to the origins of this country,” Tonya Thomas said. “You can’t understate Maryland food contribution to this country, and you can’t understate African Americans’ contribution to that.”
Here are three examples.
One of the biggest influences on American fine cuisine is James Hemings, who was born in Virginia in 1765, but lived in Baltimore as an adult. He was living in the city and working at a tavern, the Colombian Inn, at 237 Baltimore St., when he died at age 36.
Considered the “founding father of fine food in America” and the country’s first master chef, Hemings was also the first American trained as a French chef. It was in France where he picked up the cooking techniques and recipes that led him to bring back and popularize macaroni and cheese, French vanilla ice cream, crème brulee, meringue, whipped cream, and French fries to America.
Hemings was an enslaved Black man. It was later confirmed that his younger sister Sally, who was also enslaved, bore children to President Thomas Jefferson. James Hemings was Jefferson’s personal chef, which led to Hemings being trained in France to perfect top cooking styles for Jefferson, who was a fan of fine cuisine. Hemings was also the half-brother of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles.
Opportunity brought Hemings to Baltimore, according to food historian Ashbell McElveen, who is founder of the James Hemings Society.
“The opportunity for employment in Baltimore was different from Philadelphia, where there was a lot more competition between free Blacks for work,” he explained. “He wasn’t making slop. He was making the finest food in America in that tavern. I’m sure he was paid handsomely for it.”
McElveen, who produced and wrote the documentary “James Hemings: Ghost in America’s Kitchen” with director Anthony Werhun, has looked deeply into Hemings’ life — particularly his time with Jefferson and his culinary training in Europe.
Hemings and another enslaved Black man, Hercules Posey, the chef to President George Washington, were responsible for what Mcelveen calls “fine Virginia plantation cooking.”
He explained, “It’s a fusion of English, Irish, and Scottish mixed with West African foodways, and that collection of cooking Hemings took from Paris. What we know as fine food was created by enslaved Black chefs.”
Although it is believed Hemings died as a result of suicide, McElveen disputes the cause of death.
Some historians — such as McElveen and the Thomases — believe that he was murdered.
Considered an audacious dresser, Hemings wore finer clothes than Baltimore’s richest white residents, according to McElveen.
“In 1801, Baltimore was literally a frontier town on the water,” McElveen said. “It was full of everybody from the highest to the lowest.
“Imagine a free Black man who was very fastidious with his dress in 1801 in Baltimore stepping out anywhere in clothes finer than any white person could wear in Baltimore,” McElveen continued. “Imagine that and the uproar and attention that would cause. He wasn’t hiding his clothes. He was definitely not shy.”
Maryland was also among the first states that saw thriving Black-owned catering businesses, according to the Thomases.
“We grew the food, we picked the food, cooked the food, and plated the food. We have to take notice of that and make that known,” David Thomas said.
“It was African Americans cooking in the home — whether it was for the private family, or parties. Out of that began an industry,” he explained.
Henry Jakes, a Baltimore-based caterer who worked for politicians and dignitaries in the late 1800s, was known for his stewed terrapin and oysters, according to the Thomases.
Thomas J. Dorsey, a former enslaved child who was born in Maryland and escaped to Philadelphia, later became one of that city’s most prominent caterers in the late 19th century, according to White.
Black people — many of whom served as cooks while enslaved or as domestic workers —were accustomed to making elaborate meals on plantations, in grand estates, and in homes that were using enslaved cooks.
Those culinary creators — particularly Black women — were expected to “wow” dinner guests, according to White.
“These meals were multifaceted,” White explained. “They were served in two to three broad courses. Numerous dishes were served on the table for each course. At times, up to 24 different dishes were served for each meal. She’s creating haute cuisine. She probably doesn’t read. So she has to remember and fill in the blanks. She is influencing the cuisine. She’s putting her skills to work to render the recipe.”
Catering work would have been a “natural progression” for Black people with a culinary skill set, White said.
“I’m not surprised,” she added. “It makes total sense.”
The tradition of Black caterers continues to this day in Maryland, as Black cooks and chefs face obstacles to securing capital in order to obtain brick-and-mortar restaurants and eateries, according to the Thomases.
Oyster houses were also a source of economic success for Black Marylanders.
“These little oyster houses were not in a brick-and-mortar. There was very little overhead. You could operate on the docks,” White said.
White added that oyster houses became a place of refuge for escaped enslaved people. They are repeatedly mentioned as places to search in runaway slave ads, according to White.
Crab grading system
Perhaps the greatest contribution that Black Marylanders have contributed to food history is the creation of the crab grading system.
Frederic Jewett, a Black man who co-owned the St. Michael’s-based Coulbourne and Jewett Seafood Packing Company, is credited with creating the grading system for differentiating types of crab meat. That led to many of the terms used today to describe and sell crab meat, such as colossal lump, jumbo lump, lump, backfin, special, and claw.
Hopkins likens it to the classifying systems popularized by the French for sauces, wines and cooking techniques.
“That is a big deal,” she said. “It provides the structures and parameters.”
Jewett launched the business in 1902 with his business partner, William Coulbourne. And their company is credited with popularizing blue crabs, which at the time played second fiddle to oysters.
Their business was the largest employer in St. Michaels and the largest Black-owned business in the state of Maryland, with about 100 employees at its peak.
“He took his bottom feeder and made it the star of Maryland cuisine,” David Thomas explained. “I don’t know how you can get more revolutionary than that. Would crab be so sought after if Maryland didn’t have that grading system? What does everybody look for? Jumbo lump. Everybody who loves jumbo lump crab needs to thank Frederic Jewett.”
“You want to see the importance, look at everything Marylanders covet about the bay,” Thomas added. “None of that would have been possible without the work of African Americans.”
The Thomases are releasing a T-shirt honoring the company this month.