The General’s Cook

Written by Ramin Ganeshram
Review by Kristen McDermott

It’s no mystery why so many historical novels have featured cooks as protagonists – food is one of the most vivid windows into a culture, and culinary artists are granted privileged access to the rich and powerful of their worlds. The General’s Cook is a worthy entry into this sub-genre. Ganeshram, a celebrated food journalist, has concocted a feast of sensual storytelling in this depiction of Hercules, President George Washington’s chef.

Brilliant, perceptive, ambitious, and passionate, Hercules occupies a fascinating social niche in 18th-century Philadelphia. An African-American slave owned by Washington but granted rare privileges due to his master’s esteem for him, he commands a small army in the kitchen and benefits from lucrative side deals with his food suppliers. The City of Brotherly Love is both a haven and a hell for him, however, surrounded as he is by free people of color, including his lover, a refugee from Sainte-Domingue who is passing as white. When his master moves into his final years, Hercules struggles to secure a future for himself.

Fans of culinary art will adore the detailed descriptions of cookery, all based on historical documents, and there is plenty of drama in Hercules’ attempts to resist his fate by learning to read and making contact with the Philadelphia Abolitionist Society. As the net tightens over Hercules and the fellow slaves he tries to protect, readers will not be able to put down this entertaining adventure.