Review: The General’s Cook by Ramin Ganeshram
Arcade Publishing, 2018. Hardcover, 400 pages.
Opening in 1793 Philadelphia, this novel follows President Geroge Washingotn’s chef, the slave Hercules. Despite being a slave, Hercules is given many freedoms and commands his kitchen like the former general did his battlefields. When a day’s work was done, Hercules could go about town and had many encounters that changed him. He also earned a salary, attended the theater, and did the kitchen shopping himself.
Over the course of the 3-4 years of the novel, readers will follow Hercules’s interactions with those around him and learn how meticulous he was about his cooking. Hercules spent a great deal of time teaching two of his kitchen staff, slave Nate and indentured servant Margaret, how to cook. He also watches the forbidden romance between the two blossom. On his outings, Hercules branches beyond the usual to have his portrait painted, learn to read, and meet with his mistress, Thelma, who is mixed-race and passing as white. In The course of his job, he must navigate the needs of the President and First Lady and their stewards.
As a whole, the novel was elegantly written and proceeded at a leisurely pace. Details about the era, places, and people were abound, making this a good book to select for those wanting to know more about Philadelphia in the 1790s and the people there (like myself). The details about the foods Hercules makes will delight foodies, whom I think would be the best audience for the novel (I enjoyed them). The storyline, however, was lacking. It just followed Hercules’s day-to-day life and the novel’s end was rushed. However, that did allow readers to gain an understanding of Hercules thought process, which was insightful. Ganeshram noted the books used for research in the novel, which were many and of high-quality, such as Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington, and Louis Phillipe D’Orlean’s writings of his visit with the Washingtons.
This review was based on a review copy obtained at a conference.