Though she wasn’t in Cincinnati long, Edith Fossett managed to make quite an impression through her legacy of bringing the White House kitchen’s French cuisine to Cincinnati’s high society.
By Sean E. Andres
Edith “Edy” Hern was born in 1787 as Thomas Jefferson’s slave in Monticello. Her parents, also Jefferson’s slaves, were David and Isabel Hern. By her early teens, Edy co-headed the 10×14’ kitchen with her cousin Peter Hemings, who inherited the kitchen duties from his older brother James.
When Jefferson was elected president, he chose Edy to go with him in 1802 and leave her new husband Joe Fossett (Sally Heming’s nephew by Mary Heming-Fossett) behind. She understudied Honoré Julian whom Francophile Jefferson brought from France to cook the White House meals.
When she returned to Monticello in 1909, she became head chef, teaching her sister-in-law Frances “Franny” Gillette Hern and her sons William and Peter. After his death in 1826, Jefferson freed Joseph by his will. Edy and eight of her ten children were sold to other slave owners. Slowly, Joseph bought his family’s freedom or helped them escape by 1837. Edy’s in-laws and some of her children had already settled in Ohio at Chillicothe, but Cincinnati held more promise, so the family settled there by 1843. There, Edy helped her sons establish a successful catering business, which through hard work, became the most sought-after catering business in the city, which lasted well into the 1900s.
Edy died on 10 September 1854 at 65. Soon her husband Joe followed on 19 September 1858 at the age of 77. They are buried together at Union Baptist Cemetery with Peter and Sarah Mayrant Walker Fossett sharing a headstone and Jesse Fossett next to them. Unfortunately, their graves are in major neglect and disrepair. One goal of our project to raise funds for the restoration and marking of graves for these wonderful women in our city’s history. Theirs and Clara Ann Thompson top our list. You can donate to help preserve and restore their gravestones at the church’s GoFundMe.
Take the Edy Tour
- Oolala: Since we’ll be at the Banks, have lunch at the Yard House. However, if you want to be French about it to sample Edy’s cuisine, Restaurant L down the road is fancy and expensive. If you want French cuisine elsewhere, start at French Crust Café and Bistro across from Findlay Market.
- For Freedom: Tread on the site where Edy’s husband Joe would have worked as a blacksmith. The first location was razed, but the east wing of the National Underground Railroad Museum was built atop it. The second blacksmith shop was across from it on what’s now Freedom Way, where the Yard House or the grassy park west of it lies. While you’re there, take a trip to honor Edy and Matilda at the museum.
- A Stone’s throw away: Then head to the west side on your way to the next stop and drive past where the home at Stone Street (now known as Stone Chapel Ln) was located. Linn Street goes right over where it stood.
- Visiting the stone: Finally, go to Union Baptist Cemetery in Price Hill. The Fossett graves are located to the right before the historic church in the middle of the cemetery. Donate to the cemetery at GoFundMe.
- Want seconds? If you’re so inspired, take a weekend vacation to Monticello in Charlottesville, where Edy grew up and learned how to cook as a slave. They do a great job of telling the slave stories now. There used to be a French restaurant there named after Edy with her portrait, but it looks to be closed now.
- Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens by Wendell P. Dabney
- City of Cincinnati Map, 1885, by Colton
- Getting Word by Monticello
- Kitchen Sisters
- Colored Conventions Project
- U.S. Census Records
- Williams Directory
All photos were taken by Andres.