You are listening to the Be the Bridge Podcast with Latasha Morrison.
Latasha Morrison 0:06
[intro] How are you guys doing today? It’s exciting!
Each week, Be the Bridge Podcast tackles subjects related to race and culture with the goal of bringing understanding.
Latasha Morrison 0:17
[intro] …but I’m gonna do it in the spirit of love.
We believe understanding can move us toward racial healing, racial equity, and racial unity. Latasha Morrison is the founder of Be the Bridge, which is an organization responding to racial brokenness and systemic injustice in our world. This podcast is an extension of our vision to make sure people are no longer conditioned by a racialized society but grounded in truth. If you have not hit the subscribe button, please do so now. Without further ado, let’s begin today’s podcast. Oh, and stick around for some important information at the end.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 0:51
[voiceovers from documentary with instrumental music playing] French fries. Firm ice cream. Macaroni and cheese. Whipped cream. It went from one slave kitchen around the world. My name is Ashbell McElveen. I know that there’s a ghost in America’s kitchen because he visited me: James Hemings.
Documentary Voice 1 1:20
People don’t know who James Hemings is because he was a slave. And he did not fit the mold.
Documentary Voice 2 1:26
Every Southern chef, every single one of them, has the granddaddy James Hemings.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 1:31
James Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s brother in law, but also his enslaved property.
Documentary Voice 3 1:38
With the training that basically no American chef had at the time.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 1:43
I think he was murdered.
Documentary Voice 4 1:47
When you get honest about this complicated history, all of a sudden, this American narrative makes more sense.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 1:54
James Hemings is America’s culinary founding father.
Latasha Morrison 1:58
[in conversation] Hello, Be the Bridge community, I am so excited to have for you, actually two fellow bridge builders. And we’re going to talk about a documentary that was released on Prime Video. And we’ll give you all the information because I want you guys to see this documentary. We just passed Thanksgiving, we’re coming up on Christmas. And there is history to everything. And I’m telling you there is American history, but better yet Black history in everything in this country. And these two brilliant people that I have as guests on the Be the Bridge Podcast is going to tell you about some of that brilliance. I have Anthony Werhun on the podcast. And he is actually the director of the film. And then the writer of, I have Chef Ashbell…all you have to do is just google him. (laughter) You know, we always tell you that. Just google him and see the brilliance. And he has an incredible story. And they have put together a beautiful documentary about a culinary genius that little, most of us don’t know about because we have changed the narratives of so many stories. And that’s why it’s so important. The work that we do here at Be the Bridge as it relates to racial literacy. The work that we do in truth telling. Because we want to make sure that we’re passing on the correct information to the next generation because stories matter, narratives matter, history matters, who has power matters, who tells the story, it all matters. And so, Chef Ashbell, I have you here. I know you’re in the UK right now promoting the film. But I am just elated to have you here and to talk about, not just the brilliance of James Hemings, but your brilliance, Anthony’s brilliance, and really telling true stories that really correct history that has really pulled away just national heroes. Like these are hidden stories, but they don’t have to be hidden. You know? And they’re creating modern stories. So I would love for you to just tell us a little bit about the Ghost in the Kitchen. And who, the first question is, who is James Hemings. I know some people are recognizing the name. You heard me say Thomas Jefferson, but I just want you to just reiterate who he is and why he’s important.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 4:51
Yeah. James Hemings was born in Virginia to an enslaved mother Betty Hemings and her white owner, John Wayles. And he became the property of Thomas Jefferson when Jefferson married John Wayles’ daughter, Martha. So James was half brother to Jefferson’s wife Martha, and became his property at about seven or eight, I guess. When John Wayles died everything went to the man, of course, which would be Thomas Jefferson. And so, everybody’s heard the famous name of Sally Hemings, who had six children by Jefferson, that had, you know, been disputed in history, but now proven as DNA is enduring.
Latasha Morrison 5:40
Thank God for DNA.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 6:06
Yeah. And we’re blessed to have Shannon LaNier, who is a descendant of both James Hemings and of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. So Sally Hemings was the youngest sister of James Hemings. Yeah. And James Hemings was first Jefferson’s valet, as a teenager. So he was actually in the room at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He was actually in the room when the Constitution was being debated and discussed. And that’s, when you, when people wrap their head around that they, “WHA?!” Well, yeah, because, you know, people of Jefferson’s, men of Jefferson’s standing at that time had to be attended at all times. They had to be, they didn’t go up and get themselves a glass of water or a cup of tea or coffee or a drink of cider. That was all brought to them.
Latasha Morrison 7:23
Chef Ashbell McElveen 7:21
And we see James in that crucial function of first valet when he was a teenager and traveled with Jefferson, he and his brother, Robert. And having Jefferson when he was appointed to the American delegation in France that Ben Franklin was heading, when he was appointed to that delegation by George Washington, he took 19 year old James Hemings to learn the craft of becoming a French chef. And James Hemings, actually, so excelled that task that I began to just look at all of the bits and pieces of how he negotiated learning another language, ending up speaking and writing it fluently. And for him to come from colonial Virginia, and in Richmond where there was only one house made of brick. And to arrive in Paris and to be trained at the Chateau Chantilly, the best table in France, where the food was considered better than the food at Versailles. He literally landed on the moon into a sophisticated, the most sophisticated city in western Europe that had over a half million population. When sleepy Richmond had about four or 500 in population. So that’s the kind of perspective that we start to want to look at James Hemings and his contribution to American food and drink. After he completed his training at the Chteau Chantilly, he took over being the chef at Jefferson’s residence on the Champs-Élysées And that was the first American official diplomatic residence and James Hemings supervised a staff of 10 French speaking cooks and helpers. And he was the heart of Jefferson’s English only salons that were famous, where he invited the leaders of the Enlightenment, because he was the darling of the Enlightenment. And he also invited royalty. And they had the most discerning palates in Paris at the time. And they all loved his food. And that was the first weaponization of James Hemings’s talent by Thomas Jefferson. But we can get into a lot more of that a little later.
Latasha Morrison 10:46
Okay, wow, wow. I am so excited to hear about this. When you guys are sitting around your table eating, I hope you think about this, you know, as you’re eating this food that is connected to history, and not just Black history, but American history. And I just want to talk to you, Anthony, just for a moment. I’m going to come back to you, Chef Ashbell. Anthony, why…Anthony, I know you were in a Be the Bridge group. Your wife was the co-leader.
Anthony Werhun 11:22
Latasha Morrison 11:22
It was in New Jersey. Right?
Anthony Werhun 11:23
That’s right. South Jersey.
Latasha Morrison 11:25
Yeah. We have, listen, we have Be the Bridge groups all over this country, including about I think it’s about 13 or 14 globally. And we’re in 13 or 14 global countries. And so this, you know, there’s so many stories connected. So when we can hear a story connected to some of the work that you’re doing, and how you’re walking out bridge building in your life, that’s incredible, you know, to be able to tie that back into that work. And so, how did you hear about this documentary? How has it impacted you? So I know that you are a producer, director. You’ve led several films as it relates to Civil Rights. I would love just to hear a little bit about who you are and how you came to be connected to Chef Ashbell.
Anthony Werhun 12:32
It’s been quite the journey. And I really do think that God is at the center of it. Because when there’s too many coincidences in your life, you have to look at them as something other than coincidences. So I went where the bread crumbs led me. And as you mentioned, I worked with Comcast, and still am, on Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, which is a very large Civil Rights collection. So you have an ear for that, I had a passion for finding lost history and completing narratives. It just, you know, so when, when things cross my path that I don’t know about, but I should, I can’t help but be intrigued. I found out about James Hemings through a friend of mine who was actually interested in writing a script for a narrative piece about James Hemings. And he asked me to collaborate with him. I started to research Hemings, and I was mystified of the fact that I had not heard of him before. I’d heard of Sally Hemings. But you’ve got this guy who is taken from this small Virginia world, as Ashbell mentioned. Taken over to Paris where it is this big, bustling, alien culture to him. He excels, becomes America’s first Master Chef. Saves Jefferson in Paris, which is a whole nother story, but is very, very crucial in preserving America’s reputation abroad at a time when we very much needed to preserve that reputation. Then he comes back to America, and he is the reason that french fries, macaroni and cheese, firm ice cream, whipped cream. He’s the reason that these things are disseminated and become the, you know, the classics that they are today. He’s such an interesting, interesting character, so deep and rich and yet unknown. That just almost felt a little creepy to me. It was strange. It’s a glitch in the matrix. So I was interested in the James Hemings character and then a friend of mine, Steve Granados, who was a wonderful and talented man and works in various different arenas of the film universe. I overhear him talking on set for a commercial project about you know, I just hear words in the background. I hear, “the James Hemings Society” and my head flips around. “Did you mention James Hemings?” And he’s telling somebody about his buddy Ashbell Chef Ashbell McElveen, who is the founder of the James Hemings Society. So my jaw drops to the floor, you just don’t encounter a lot of people who are familiar with this James Hemings story. I told him that I’m, you know, working on a very early project. I don’t even know what it’s going to be. But I’m very interested in this James Hemings person. Ashbell and I had coffee. And we were off to the races. I think that we both sort of felt a, we’ve always felt a spiritual duty since that initial meeting to do something to get this out. And we didn’t necessarily know it was going to be a documentary at first. Because there’s a lot of different things and there will be a lot more content relating to the James Hemings story. But that is just where spiritually, we were kind of led, certain windows opened, other ones closed, and you just keep moving. And by the grace of God we were able to actually get something done without having to compromise the story.
Latasha Morrison 15:53
Anthony Werhun 15:53
It’s a long journey to get one of these things, without a big formal partnership, to get them out into the world. So to see it now on Prime Video, it’s a miracle for both of us.
Latasha Morrison 16:06
Chef Ashbell McElveen 16:07
What he means to say very delicately is that we did it on nothing. On faith. Okay? (laughter)
Latasha Morrison 16:14
Wow. I love it.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 16:15
We did it on faith and very little money and support. Blessed to have the support of people that just looked and said, “Oh, what are you working on? Oh, okay. Well, my fee is two grand a day, but oh, no, I’m gonna. No, that’s okay. Okay, but I’m gonna be a part of this. I’m gonna donate my services.” And that’s how this hobbled piece, it was by divine order that this thing has happened. And I am both humbled and understand the blessing and the favor of having completed this.
Latasha Morrison 17:07
I know just even your story alone, like, you know, a lot of us when we birth things, you know, even like Be the Bridge of just this foundation that you birthed, there was impact. There’s a story connected to that happening for you. And I know, in the documentary we hear, we get to see a little bit about your background, but without giving it all away. Because I want people to go and purchase the film on Prime Video and watch it. You can purchase it or you can rent it. But a part of your story, you were born in I think Sumter, South Carolina, right?
Chef Ashbell McElveen 17:46
Latasha Morrison 17:46
Yeah. And what year were you born?
Chef Ashbell McElveen 17:50
I was born in 1950.
Latasha Morrison 17:53
Chef Ashbell McElveen 17:54
Into the last modern version of chattel slavery – Jim Crow.
Latasha Morrison 18:00
Yeah, yeah. So you were born, I think, three years before, two years before my father. So, that age.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 18:07
Latasha Morrison 18:07
Yeah. So I know, I understand that age you were born into. I mean, Jim Crow segregation. There were little opportunities. And one story that you told I want you to tell it.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 18:19
Latasha Morrison 18:19
You tell the story. I think this because it seems like this was a turning point for you. You know, your mother was a cook. Your father also was, I think your father was involved in cooking too.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 18:39
Latasha Morrison 18:40
And owned a restaurant or something. But you tell the story about your mom, and I think going into cardiac arrest. And could you just tell that story and how this kind of set the course for just really this destiny as a chef.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 19:04
Well, while we’re filming this in Sumter, South Carolina, I had the, well we had the pleasure of meeting my mother’s close friend, Mr. Jerry Williams, who was 93 years old at the time. And we did a table session with him but he didn’t appear in the in the documentary. But he introduced me to my mother when she was a young cook, working in a kitchen. And he was the guy delivering wood and coal for the stoves. And he said one day that he arrived in this kitchen and one of the old ladies, one of the head cooks had gone to my mother and said, “Retha, can you taste this and tell me if it’s okay?” And he said he was so shocked that the tables have traditionally, to go to the old lady to say, “Taste this. And let me know if it’s okay.” But the roles reversed, and that he was so shocked to see that, that he said to himself, “I’ve got to know who that woman is.” And I would not have known that if it wasn’t for Mr. Jerry Williams. Okay? And that is, it was so pivotal in understanding who my mother was long before her children were born, and that she had a long life training and working as a chef. And when she was 39 years old, she had a heart attack. This was 1963. And she had a heart attack and we called the ambulance, of course. And so the whites only ambulance from the hospital, from Toomey Hospital in Sumter, South Carolina, arrives at our house. And they come inside and see that she is Black. And the attendant said, “We can’t put her in here. And y’all call one of the funeral homes.” Well, there were two Black funeral homes in a town of, I don’t know, about 20,000 people at the time. And they each had an ambulance, but they were out helping other people’s sick relatives, etc. So they left because they could not, they would not put her in a whites only ambulance. And we, you know, did what we could and put cold compresses on her and watched her life slip away. And that was a very impactful moment. But I knew then that I was not going to harbor that as a horror, that I would be living my life as a tribute to what my mother taught me. And it was love. That was what she put in my heart. And, I am very proud to say that I have not let her down. So this is a real kind of tragic part of American history. But if it wasn’t my family, if it wasn’t my family it would have been somebody else’s family. And the curious thing is nowadays with so many young people unaware of our history, and so many lies being told, and so much escapism, I know that I’ve been being literally set in motion by God, by divine order, Even when I didn’t understand what was going on. I was set in motion to be building the bridge table for this moment. I had the opportunity to cook for Nelson Mandela when he came to Brooklyn, at the Salem Baptist Church. And, when it came into the kitchen, because I couldn’t get out of the kitchen because so many people and you’re doing the food. He came right into the kitchen. And he hugged me and said, “Brother, that was so good. That was so good. What was that?” I said, “It was just poor people’s love. That’s what it was. That’s all it was.” And I’ll never forget that. And now I understand his truth and reconciliation. And my table is about that. I understand that that’s my bridge.
Latasha Morrison 24:39
Chef Ashbell McElveen 24:40
Latasha Morrison 24:40
Whew. This is so powerful. Like I just wanted to even pause in that moment and I’m glad, thank you for sharing your family’s story. I know that is difficult. So we lament that. But it’s good for us to remind people of that history, because that was in 1963. And there’s a lot of people who are listening to this podcast where either their parents or themselves were born during that time. So this is recent history. And I had heard the story, and you just, I had almost forgotten that how funeral homes, you know, because graves were segregated, funeral homes were segregated, and how funeral homes the hearse would serve as ambulances a lot of time to the Black community. That is even why in California that was one of the missions of the Black Panthers was to have ambulance service into our communities. Because people were dying, because they would call 911 and their area was not serviced. So I think we have to know that history, lament that history, and we have to know it, because we have to make sure that is not repeated. One of the things I wanted you…both of you talked about, you know, you mentioned this, you said, you know that Hemings, James Hemings, that he returned to America when he could have freed himself in Paris. And you both talked about how he protected, basically, America’s secret. And I wanted you, you explained this a little bit in the documentary. But could you explain this a little bit?
Chef Ashbell McElveen 26:35
Yes. When they arrived in France, France didn’t have chattel slavery and nor did England at that time. Although chattel slavery did exist in Spain, up until the 1880s. But in France and England, there was no, slavery was outlawed. But the colonies, their colonies, still had slavery. So the EU were forbidden to bring slaves into, or enslaved people, into France without declaring that. So Jefferson hired a lawyer to get advice on what he should do, because he had not declared James Hemings. And James being the literate person he was. He ended up being in a community of 3 to 5,000 Black people, if you can imagine, all in one neighborhood. Not spread all over Paris, but all in one neighborhood. And they were all free people. And all he had to do was to walk into the Admiralty court, and declare his freedom and not one declaration was denied. Okay? But if he had done that, Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson and Adams and Ben Franklin would have been pariahs overnight. They would have been shunned. Because the tenets of the Enlightenment was vehemently anti-slavery. And that was the secret that James Hemings held and protected the fragile credit of the US because Ben Franklin, in particular, was in Paris to raise money from rich, old dowagers to finance, one, the war between England and America, and that which was financed by the French.
Latasha Morrison 29:02
Chef Ashbell McElveen 29:03
And, it was Franklin’s job to keep that money rolling and to help to establish a fragile credit for the US. And James knew all of that, knew that if he declared his freedom in France, it would have destroyed the reputations overnight of the American delegation. Overnight, so nobody would have come to Jefferson’s salons. They literally would have been shocked because that anti-slavery ethos was very powerful. And they would not have been able to survive that. So.
Latasha Morrison 29:57
And if he had come forward, it would have like diminished that and then the money could have stopped.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 30:03
Oh the money would have stopped.
Anthony Werhun 30:04
History would be very different.
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Latasha Morrison 0:00
Anthony, what do you think when you heard this and researching this? I mean, what did you think about James? Because I have so many feelings, because it’s not just this story. But there’s so many stories like this. And you know, I think about even as recent history where we had, you know, some of the marginalized communities like our Indigenous community, and Asian American community, African American community fighting in wars, like, you know, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Civil War, fighting for our country when our country would not fight for us.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 0:47
But that was, let me just stick on that point. That was from the inception. Okay? Don’t forget, Crispus Attucks was the first to fall.
Latasha Morrison 1:00
Chef Ashbell McElveen 1:01
Okay? And he wasn’t the only one in that crowd. He wasn’t the only Black person in that crowd.
Latasha Morrison 1:07
Right. Can you tell who that is? Because for people who are listening, because remember, we were educated in this American system. And so most people, when they hear about him, they don’t know that he was a Black man.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 1:19
Yeah, well, Crispus Attacks was in the the small mob protesting British soldiers in Boston. And when those soldiers famously fired on that mob assembly, it was a protest on the tea tax. And when those group of protesters assembled, Crispus Attucks was among them. And there were several other Blacks among, in that group, too. And when the British fired, Crispus Attucks was the first person killed. And he was recognized for probably 50 or 60 years, very, very well by colonial governments, and etc. There was all kinds of story. And he’s also faded into history. But he was celebrated by George Washington and Ben Franklin, and all of the founding fathers as a hero. And how did it be that, can be in our current political climate that that’s not something that’s being told, but everybody else is hijacking patriot. And, “Yeah, we did this and we did that,” when…you know, I literally came to England, and I spent 15 years living in England, and about 10 years living in France. And one of the reasons I came to England was to look in the faces of the people that had come from England, and to look at their mama and them and see how they acted. Okay? And I know that’s southernism, but it was you or the product of what your mama and them taught you. And them means community and family. Okay? So when and old southerner like me says, “and them,” it’s meaning your family and friends and the culture you were raised in. So all of this for me…
Latasha Morrison 3:53
You just took us to school with that, because I say it all the time.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 3:56
Latasha Morrison 3:56
I said you just took us to school with that. We got to pause, selah.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 3:59
Latasha Morrison 4:00
Because I use that, your mama and them all the time. Because I know like all of them. But to put that meaning community, like, yes, that’s powerful right there.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 4:16
Well, that is, that you know, that just helped me inform and to listen to the spirits of the people that came before me. And I have a particular indebtedness to all of those that have sacrificed and came before us. And that’s why I’m so glad to meet Anthony because he’s literally a brother from another mother.
Latasha Morrison 4:55
I love it. I love it.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 4:57
And we vibe both spiritually and artistically in a way that helped to make this project happen. And, you know, I had a comment from actually an African director who said, “Well, well, this is a Black story, why you got a white guy directing it? Why didn’t you have a Black director?” I said, “This is an American story. This is about all of us. And don’t give me that kind of divisive crap. Because this is American history. And we all have a responsibility to share its true history.”
Latasha Morrison 5:46
Chef Ashbell McElveen 5:47
And on the culinary side, you know, for me, you know, I come from the generation that you know, that vibed with James Brown, “I’m Black and I’m proud.”
Latasha Morrison 6:00
Chef Ashbell McElveen 6:00
And, “I’m a soul man.” And that’s where soul food, the term soul food came out of that empowerment back in the late 60s and early 70s. And to really take that and go through the, you know, making this documentary with James Hemings. I discovered that literally, enslaved Black cooks and chefs created fine dining in America. So James Hemings literally put fine taste in Thomas Jefferson’s mouth, not the reverse. And that’s the value of this documentary. And, you know, his story can’t be told in an hour, and there’s all the projects and the works to kind of answer more of your questions though, but yeah.
Anthony Werhun 7:11
James, he really did, it’s one of the great contributions that just goes unnoticed. He is responsible for giving Jefferson one of his best social weapons and social capital builders, which with that charm offensive, he had the finest chef in this country. James, by all accounts, you know, a lot of the folks in the film in a very articulate and holistic way, point you to the fact that James was phenomenal at what he did. And when you look at things like the Assumption Dinner, where we decided to make DC the capital and this great compromise that shaped modern America, James cooked that meal. And this is after choosing to come back to the United States in an act of faith to family and you know, genuine patriotism, agape patriotism, I don’t even know what to call it. But like the same with Crispus Attucks, it’s hard to, it is a selfless kind of love to give that to a place that hasn’t given it to you. It’s hard to even fully understand it. And we all know Paul Revere’s midnight ride, right? There’s a lot of things that kids leave school knowing about that early American period, and that revolutionary period. James’s story is up there with any of them. And it really is important that we tell this history because I do think that God gives people great talent to bring glory to himself. We have to acknowledge greatness, when we see it, especially when it is done in such a selfless way that has benefited all of us. James Hemings was a big part of this country’s formation. And for some reason, that story has been oppressed for a couple 100 years. It’s just this little, you know, this little blurb, but it’s much bigger. And Ashbell, as he mentioned, it is a much bigger story.
Latasha Morrison 9:13
I wanna get to that. Because I definitely want to know what’s next for his story.
Anthony Werhun 9:16
There will be more about James Hemings, I have no doubt.
Latasha Morrison 9:16
You know, every time when we hear like taking these hidden stories, and bringing them to life and telling this truth is empowering, not just for our community, but for America. I mean, because these are people who have contributed to American culture. They’re heroes in their own way, you know, in how they contributed. And it’s just basically acknowledging and being inclusive in the fact that giving people there rightful due in the sense where you are a part of the society. You are seen. You are a patriot. You know, where he could have blew everything up. Like, I mean, just one decision, he could have blown it up. And I know some people listening to the story now, and even as I listened to the story, I’m like what would I do? And I’m gonna say I would have burned it down. In the sense where if I could taste freedom and I’m up here, you know, in another country cooking this meal. So it shows you you know, like he was seeing something greater. And then we also don’t know what was, he had family still in the US. So we don’t know. And we’re very collective as a community. So I’m pretty sure he was thinking about that, because one of the first things we see, after the Civil Rights, excuse me, after the Civil War, were people, African Americans looking for their loved ones that had been sold. And so that connectiveness I can understand why he, you know, kept quiet. But one question I have, because there was a few people in the film that I want to, you know, ask you about. But, why is this story relevant today, you know, to those who are listening? And why is history, all of history, all of American history, which is inclusive of Indigenous history, Latin history, Asian American history, African American history, why is this important to tell?
Well, he literally has never been more relevant.
Anthony Werhun 11:48
It has never been more relevant.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 11:50
We briefly touched on a point. And the reason why these stories are not being told is racism. Okay?
Latasha Morrison 11:57
Chef Ashbell McElveen 11:58
There is a racial bias to giving the actual creators credit for things that they built and incurred in America. And when you were just talking about your reaction to go, “I would have burnt it down.” Well, I want to share a story with you.
Latasha Morrison 12:24
Chef Ashbell McElveen 12:25
I was sitting in the causeway alone in front of the 1790s kitchen at Monticello. And I was raging, having a raging conversation with myself, because I had seen a white female chef on YouTube cooking in that kitchen, James Hemings’ recipe for snow eggs. I was beside myself. I was sitting there in front of the kitchen and I was raging like, “Whoa, she was never there. What are they doing there? Who let her in this kitchen?” And what I got back was a very strong wave. I don’t know. I won’t say ghosts or spirits or whatever. But I got clearly the information. The strong wave that came back to me was, first, this is not about you. This is about us. And this is what we did here. What we did here, we did to the best of our ability and with pride in spite of our circumstances. And from that day forward, I understood that any chef of pink, yellow, orange, purple, blue, black, white, any chef of any standing and respect should go to that kitchen and enjoy the place, because that is the first cooking school in America. And from that kitchen dishes that James Hemings brought back from Paris, like French fries and macaroni and cheese and whipped cream, they went around the world. Not from their country of origin but from that enslaved kitchen. And that’s the power of James Heming’ story, and the reason why it must be told.
Anthony Werhun 14:49
You know, there’s a tendency now for people to treat history as if it’s a choice. Right?
Latasha Morrison 14:54
Anthony Werhun 14:55
This group has their history, that group has theirs. “Well, I choose to look at…” But I think that that’s dangerous. There’s one history, there isn’t a Black history and a white history. Something either happened or it didn’t. And it happened this way. We can have opinions about a lot of things. But I think it’s really, really important to acknowledge the holistic version of history, the whole thing. And we need to flex that muscle and get that muscle stronger as a people, our kids need to see that.
Latasha Morrison 15:25
Anthony Werhun 15:25
We can’t look at facts and real things like they’re liquid malleable. Things happen. And James is, every every meal in this country is served with french fries. Right? Or at least most of them. And as you mentioned earlier, Tasha, he’s connected to that. There’s a great story to be told. It’s a great dinner converstaion starter.
Latasha Morrison 15:43
And there’s so much beauty in that story. You see that brokenness and the ashes, but then there’s so much beauty from his choices, from what he built. And then just hearing you Ashbell, like, just your story and how from that brokenness beauty has come from that. And then so many people I saw within this documentary, I think there was a, you know, how we’re building our own tables. And this one lady who was a chef who felt unseen, and just like from the techniques that she was being taught like, none of her connectiveness to her people were a part of this story that’s being told as she’s being trained. And she’s decided to research the history. So I think it’s the Black History of Culinary Arts or something?
Chef Ashbell McElveen 16:43
Latasha Morrison 16:44
Yeah, what was her name?
Chef Ashbell McElveen 16:46
Therese Nelson. Chef Therese Nelson.
Latasha Morrison 16:48
Chef Ashbell McElveen 16:49
Who was amazing.
Anthony Werhun 16:50
Black Culinary History.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 16:51
Latasha Morrison 16:48
Michael Twitty. I mean, some people may recognize his name. He’s been in several documentaries. And he’s like a food historian and just brilliance all throughout the film. And I’m so glad when I’m listening to both of you. I’m like, this is what God does. You know, the telling of this story is going to inspire young chefs. And, they’re going to see that, “Hey, I do belong in this this. This is inclusive of me also.” The same way when we talk about STEM and hearing, you know, the stories I’m forgetting her name, Katherine Johnson, you know, right now. Hearing that story of Katherine Johnson is imperative because people can say, “She did it with all of these limitations and barriers. What more can I do?” So when we give people credit, and so that’s when it goes back to the racist tendency. Because one of the things that was stated in the film, and we know this to be true, just throughout history, that in order to, I guess, in order for Black people to remain enslaved, there was a dumbing down that like, there was no soul, we were impossible to educate, we were basically considered chattel, animals. And so if you had someone that was like a James Hemings or in so many others, like a Frederick Douglass, who, you know, was enslaved, but one of the most brilliant writers that we have. And so many others, W. E. B. Du Bois, like so many people. That was a way of justifying the act of enslavement. And I think without that narrative, I think sometimes now, when we refuse to tell these stories, what are we afraid of? What are we afraid of?
Chef Ashbell McElveen 17:52
The fear is literally very simple to me. The fear is that we would do to the people that did to us, what they did to us if we were in power. That’s the mortal fear.
Latasha Morrison 19:28
Yeah, that’s the vengeance, that vengeance story. But like, what is the fear of telling the truth in history? Because it’s empowering for one thing. You know? And it changes, it changes, and people are transformed through truth; the truth makes us free. And so there’s this fear of losing power. And, then we have to look at who’s afraid of losing power, and how this is a racist ideology. So we should be, as you know, believers, we should be freeing ourselves of that type of ideology. So this is why I love these stories. And I’m grateful for you, Anthony. One of the things that we communicate in our bridge building work is for those who are learning through racial literacy is to listen: to listen to the voices that have been marginalized, to listen to our stories, to listen to our experiences, to learn, to educate yourself. I see how you’ve done that through this story. You were already, like, amazing learning about this, and then God would bring you and Ashbell together. You know? This was something you were learning and leaning into these stories, as you’ve done with Civil Rights. And then, you know, to lament, to lament that history, to have sorrow. But lament should lead us toward justice, you know, to lifting us up, to lifting us out. And then you leveraging, you’re leveraging your skills. Ashbell has a skill of storytelling, of education, of the craft of culinary art, you know, all these giftings. And then you have this gifting of being a producer, director, you know, a right light, and then you mirror those together, and you have this beautiful story. And that is how you leverage your privilege. And so I’m grateful for this story. What is next for the James Hemings story?
Anthony Werhun 21:59
Well, we hope that it continues to do well on Amazon Prime Video. It’s being released internationally, it’s already out in a lot of countries and continuing to roll out. And it’s a big story. I mean, Ashbell is working on a another piece inspired by James Hemings. I don’t think that this is going to stop. We’re both very, very driven. And Ashbell, I think you would probably the world’s foremost expert in the soul of not just the history of it. There’s something about the way Ashbell connects to James that is truly unique and his own. And I think that is going to continue to motivate projects in the narrative space and possibly back documentary space, but maybe with a slightly different focus.
Latasha Morrison 22:40
What do you think Ashbell?
Chef Ashbell McElveen 22:41
Being in Europe literally showed me a very unintended benefit of having made the film. I attended, was invited to a tasting dinner by a young British African chef, where he served the tasting menu of eleven courses from his British Nigerian roots, British and Nigerian roots. And there was an Asian, Asian by mean, East African sommelier whose family was settled in Tanzania, and she was a sommelier. And it was such an incredible experience because what James Hemings’ story gave them were in Europe, where there was no chattel slavery, and African Americans are still dealing with the psychological effects of that horror. But in Europe, in that part of the African diaspora that wasn’t so. But what was so was the racism. Bbut what they see in James Hemings was that what James Hemings established in 1785 or 6 in Paris was a standard of creative excellence that other people of color has followed. And they can now point to having a Black person from the diaspora, have the history of putting them with 235 years or 230 years of excellence in Europe, where they’re always been told, “Go back to where you come from.” Okay? But here they can say, “Oh, oh, I was there. I was excellent. And I did. Somebody that looked like me, was respected to the max.” There’s a current film out, well it’s coming out in April, it’s called Chevalier. And it’s about the story of Joseph Bologne, who was instrumental in James Hemings’ life in Paris. And he was the Michael Jackson of his time. And also the best swordsman in France and the best shot. And he was a music teacher. He and Mozart had the same music teacher, but his concertos came out months before Mozart. And he is known as the Black Mozart. But that will give you the flavor of where James Hemings was. It was so far from 12 Years of Slave. It was at the pinnacle of the excellence in France were these two Black men. And, that is something that, you know, Bridgerton on Netflix has shown us the appetite for seeing dark people in places of power and respect in Europe. But James Hemings set the standard that Josephine Baker and James Baldwin and Richard Wright and Bricktop. All of them followed that standard of creative excellence that wasn’t available in their own country. Paul Robeson in England when starring in Othello in 1928. He would have been hung in America if he starred opposite a white woman in Othello. But he did that in 1928 in London. And he went on to do several fundraisers to establish the current Labour Party in Britain. All because of him. Paul Robeson. Those are the histories that of African Americans in Europe that not only enrich the countries that they lived in outside of America, like England and France, but they enriched the world. And those are the untold stories that are so important that we share. And so well what’s next for the James Hemings’ story is the examination of those five years in Paris, of James Hemings, where he had his own money. He took extra advance lessons from famous, very famous pastry chefs to hone his craft. And he also hired a tutor to teach him the French that was spoken at court. So he had aspirations in France, too. So, you know, these stories must be told. I mean, you know, Bridgerton’s a big hit on Netflix, but it’s a thin history.
Latasha Morrison 28:27
Chef Ashbell McElveen 28:28
This one is when you see the the history of our first Supreme Court Chief Justice, and his enslaved maid, Abigail, whom he and Ben Franklin wanted to teach a lesson by putting her in a French prison because she walked away on the advice of an English woman who said, “You can have your freedom.” But because she didn’t speak French, she didn’t know how. But she walked away. And the two of them hunted her down, found her, and they teach her a lesson. They put her in a French jail to teach her a lesson. And well, she got sick and ended up dying because of that. And then, but our first Chief Justice went on to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. So all of these things are all historic and documented. And America in particular at this moment needs to know these stories.
Latasha Morrison 29:43
Right, right. So I think it’s our job, too. It’s difficult, and it’s hard, but I think it’s a part of our job to spotlight these stories.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 29:58
Latasha Morrison 29:58
To tell the stories, to fight, and to fight back educationally to make sure, but being very strategic with it. It’s so funny. I was just thinking this morning about a program that I used to be in charge of years ago. And it was educational program. And we used to tutor children in particularly underserved communities, and then also help Black students as it relates to the SAT and different things like that. And I just really thought about that this morning about how do we bring that back, you know, where we’re not just depending on the school system to do this. Because most of us were educated in the American school system. And these things are not taught. They probably will never be taught in certain states. But we can reimagine and dream of other ways to tell the stories, because as long as we have breath in our body there is opportunity, there is a way. As long as we are breathing, you can do something. And so sometimes those little ideas, you know, those little creativities, like people, we all have different gifts, that gift may be the vehicle for for transformation. And so thank you both for using your gift for transformation and telling these stories. And I can listen to you all day Chef Ashbell. You know, like I’m like, “Okay, who’s the lady? What was the lady? What did they do?”
Chef Ashbell McElveen 31:51
Latasha Morrison 31:51
And there’s like so many stories. Like I could just be a student, and I could just, there’s just so many stories. So my prayer is that all of these stories you have of high importance would would get done, and that this film would be so successful that others would want to hear. Because people want to hear this. You can see from the ratings of shows of stories and documentaries like this, that people want to hear. And I know this film was the best documentary feature at the Roxbury International Film Festival. And then it was like official selection it looks like at the Cannes. Can you tell me a little bit?
Chef Ashbell McElveen 32:39
Yeah. The Cannes Film Festival in France. Yes.
Latasha Morrison 32:43
Okay. Okay. So Film Festival in France. And so, you know, if France is interested in our stories, we should be interested in our stories. But one thing, I just want to…help me with this, because you guys may know. I also read about, and it may have been in the documentary, I can’t remember, about Hercules was another chef.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 33:12
Yes. Hercules Posey was George Washington’s chef. And he and James Hemings literally brought fine Virginia plantation cooking to an urban setting, first Philadelphia and then New York. And that was the first fine dining experience with that particular fusion of English, Irish, and Scottish with some Native American and a dash of French and a dash of German. But the Africans that took that pot and stirred it with herbs and spices and honed that fusion into a cuisine. That is the basis of what James Hemings took to Paris to fuse with fine French cuisine, creating the style of dining that Jefferson preferred half French and half Virginian. And even though he didn’t get to be the chef in the White House, his three students did: Ursula Granger, Edith Fossett, and Frances Hern. They were taught, they were taken to the White House when Jefferson refused to write James Hemings. What he asked for was a letter of invitation. And he didn’t, Jefferson didn’t want to write a letter to a Black man, for posterity’s purposes. So he brought those three women to the White House to teach the white chef that he did write a letter of invitation to James’s style of cooking. So James had the last laugh.
Latasha Morrison 35:16
Yeah. So we will reclaim those stories. We will uplift those stories and tell those stories. And I that’s a show of resistance. And it’s also a show of love. What I would want to know from you, Anthony, and then from you, Chef Ashbell, what are some things right now that’s giving you hope? Anthony, what is something that’s giving you hope?
Anthony Werhun 36:00
You know, I really do…things like Be the Bridge, and not to be, obviously this is the platform that we’re on. But when I did that group, and you have honest conversations with people, and you see an appetite to do the work, and some of the reactions that we’ve gotten to the film and even just informal conversations I’ve had with people about it. And you see people leaning into the discomfort of accepting these narratives. You asked earlier, “Why? Why is it that there is a resistance to these stories and to this kind of lost history?” And it popped into my head, we always have to fight some of our more base instincts. Right? So I have three little kids. And if one of them has some kind of an achievement has a real good basketball game or gets a good report card, you can see the other two get uncomfortable. You can see the other two, trying to figure out how they can even the score, bring them down a notch. Now, obviously, one of them getting a good report card doesn’t do anything to the others. Just because somebody goes up doesn’t mean that you go down. But there is something innately in us that seems to think otherwise. You know, it is that sinful nature of man. So I think that that happens with history, too. And people hear somebody like James Hemings being exalted, being lifted up, they think somehow that that takes their history, even though there’s only one history, and moves it down. And that is, we’re never going to get anywhere, if that’s the way that we think and you can’t change everybody. But I have seen a lot of people as you will in Be the Bridge groups across the country, across the world who are leaning in to doing the work. And that’s going to change the world.
Latasha Morrison 37:46
The remnant. The remnant as I call it. The remnant. Powerful things happen through the remnant.
Anthony Werhun 37:48
You know? A small group here, there. So I am excited about that change.
Latasha Morrison 37:59
Anthony Werhun 38:01
Latasha Morrison 38:03
Anthony Werhun 38:04
And the young, the young people, the young people I’m very excited about. The Gen Z crowd are some of the most receptive to hearing this stuff. So that makes me feel incredibly hopeful.
Latasha Morrison 38:16
How about you, Chef Ashbell?
Chef Ashbell McElveen 38:15
The positivity for me, the hope, is it just got shown to uscoming to us on Tuesday in Georgia and that gives me solace. That gives me hope. So that there’s so many that want to hear this, that want to know these stories, that want to be included. I’d love to come back to you and and explain that right at the first Thanksgiving dinner, it was Pocahontas, literally looking through the bushes in a natural water, but seeing the illegal aliens to her country cannibalize themselves, because they were so afraid to eat anything that they didn’t bring from England. So it’s been proven that they that group cannibalized themselves. And what Pocahontas did was bring the food, fed them. It wasn’t the other way around. But that’s the traditional history. “Oh, yeah. The Pilgrims were sharing their food with the Native Americans…” No they were not.
Latasha Morrison 39:27
Chef Ashbell McElveen 39:28
They were starving. And she provided them with food. And what was the repayment? The repayment was that very night, the people she fed as a thank you went and stole the corn that the Native Americans had put up for winter. They went and stole the corn. That’s their gratitude. But it definitely points out some traits in our country that go back from its inception, from the inception of the landing of those illegal aliens in Virginia to now. So anyway, I think yes, I am so grateful, Tasha, that you have been invited us to, to start to have these conversations. And I hope that you have as back.
Latasha Morrison 40:35
I want to have a video. I’m like, this podcast is not enough. We need a video. I’m working on my second book. And I’m just saying, like, you guys have so many stories. And so we need to do a video. So I’m definitely gonna be in touch. I’m so glad for the work that both of you are doing, I’m glad that our paths have crossed. I’m glad that you’re building bridges in your own way, in your own industry, within your industry. And keep up the good work. We are grateful to have you on the Be the Bridge Podcast and to hear your story. And I think it’s just a beautiful picture of bridge building with you, Anthony, as a person that is white and with you, Chef Ashaball…Ashbell. Sorry, I done gave you a new name Ashaball. (laughter)
Chef Ashbell McElveen 41:28
Well that’s what my family in England calls me, Ashabahall. (laughter)
Latasha Morrison 41:35
Oh okay. Chef Ashbell, just hearing your story, and you’re working to have this like both of you together as an African American man working together in telling these stories. So we will have all the things in the transcript for you guys to know where you can watch this film. And really, as you’re sitting around, as you prepare for your Christmas dinner or if you’ve already had it, I’m not sure when this is coming out. Or even New Years are either if it’s Black History Month or Women’s History Month which I know this will be out before then. But I hope that you will be reminded as you eat and partake of different cuisines, the history that is connected with that and how important it is for us to have a narrative of truth in this country. Because it helps us live freely. And it really, it helps us to lean into what reconciliation is and what restoration looks like. So thank you so much, Anthony and Chef Ashbell for coming on to Be the Bridge Podcast. This is just the beginning of more conversations to come. And we look forward to all the work that you are doing. And if you heard something in this podcast, make when we post that you comment on the post and tell us what you’re processing with this. We want to hear back from you. So we hope that this podcast is educating you. Make sure that you share this podcast and make sure that you tell other people about James Hemings: Ghost in the Kitchen. This is a beautiful documentary on Prime Video. And I’m grateful for streaming services that we have, because it allows films like yours, you know, to go into production and for people to see them without some of the bottlenecks that we’ve dealt with before we had streaming services. So you know this technology, as technology increases, we can utilize them to tell more stories. So I’m grateful for that. So thank you so much for joining us on the Be the Bridge Podcast.
Chef Ashbell McElveen 44:15
And thank you for having us.
Anthony Werhun 44:18
Thank you so much, Tasha. It really has been a pleasure.
Go to the donors table if you’d like to hear the unedited version of this podcast. Thanks for listening to the Be the Bridge Podcast. To find out more about the Be the Bridge organization and or to become a bridge builder in your community, go to BeTheBridge.com. Again, that’s BetheBridge.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, remember to rate and review it on this platform and share it with as many people as you possibly can. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Today’s show was edited, recorded, and produced by Travon Potts at Integrated Entertainment Studios in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. The host and executive producer is Latasha Morrison. Lauren C. Brown is the Senior Producer. And transcribed by Sarah Connatser. Please join us next time. This has been a Be the Bridge production.