Sunday, November 18, 2018

The General’s Cook, by Ramin Ganeshram. Arcade Publishing, 2018

Hercules Harkless was a real person; he was the chef for George Washington for many years. As a slave, he had privileges that most slaves didn’t;: he received a decent wage; as long as his work was done he could leave the premises and go to the tavern or the theater; and he wore beautiful clothing. But he was still a slave. He was prohibited from learning to read and write. Even though he spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, which had a law that said any slave that resided in the state for six months was free, this freedom was kept from him by the simple method of rotating him between the Philadelphia house and Mount Vernon every few months. There always existed the threat of being sold or whipped. His daughters were kept at Mount Vernon, keeping him away from them for months at a time.

Harkless ran the kitchen for Washington, although he was under the authority of white servants. He apparently was trained in France, and learned their methods of cooking. He also kept a spotless kitchen, and knew such things as washing the cutting board between working with meat and vegetables (I have no idea if these bits are backed up by history or not).

The story takes place between 1793 and 1797; in 1797, on Washington’s birthday, after preparing things and telling the other slaves what to do, he vanished, never to be found. I like to think that he gained his freedom. The story hints that a free black man set up a tavern that sold exceptional food in New York might have been him. Along with Harkless’s own story line, there are subplots. One is of his oldest son Richmond, who worked under him in the kitchen but did not show an aptitude for the job. Another line is Nate, a young slave who *does* show a talent for cooking, and his relationship with Margaret, a teenaged indentured servant (a temporary slavehood for poor white people). Threaded all through the story is the tension that all slaves lived under, of not being in charge of their lives.

I enjoyed the story although at times it seemed to wander a bit. The author’s ability to describe things, whether sites in Philadelphia, Harkless’s fancy clothing, or- especially- the food he cooks is just exquisite. I was hungry the whole time I was reading because of the food descriptions! The writing in general, though, was a bit rough in places. A number of the supporting cast are not given enough depth. The most important thing, though, is the struggle between being a man who is free to go to the theater with white people and buy nice clothes, while at the same time always being under the whim of his owners, and this is painted vividly. Five stars. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This did not alter my opinions. 


  1. Sounds interesting. I'd read most anything with good descriptions of food.

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