Because Posey was notable in his own time, there are more records of his life than of others like him – although this information is still incredibly sparse. However, Washington’s step grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, chose to immortalise the chef in an biographical sketch in his book Reflections and Private Memoirs of Washington. Much what we know about Posey’s towering persona is gleaned in Custis’ single description. Recalling his childhood in the presidential mansion, he wrote about Posey as “a culinary artiste” and “dandy”, with “great muscular power” and a “master spirit”, whose “underlings flew to his command” (among those underlings were paid white servants).
Posey was possibly a teenager when he came to Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate in Virginia, about 150 miles south-west of Philadelphia. He apprenticed there under the enslaved cooks Doll and Nathan, who managed the kitchen for many decades, and he mastered his craft so well that Washington brought him to cook at the President’s House in Philadelphia in 1790. It was here in Philadelphia that Posey was exposed to and inspired by ingredients and cooking techniques from throughout the nation – and the world.
In the time the chef resided in Philadelphia, the city was positioned ideally in the middle of the nation, and thanks to the wide, navigable Susquehanna, Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, regionally produced vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy products like milk and butter arrived regularly at its open-air High Street Market. The rest of nation supplied what wasn’t available locally. From the north came salted New England codfish and prized Connecticut onions along with upstate New York cheese. From the south there was Carolina rice and indigo, as well as tobacco from Virginia and Maryland.
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Furthermore, by the 1760s, Philadelphia’s merchants had come to realise there was an untapped secondary market in the Caribbean (outside of the sugar, molasses and rum that went to ports like New York and Boston), and the city came to lead the nation in imports of ginger, allspice and black pepper, while controlling half of all coffee imports. Nutmeg, limes, pineapples, coconuts also made their way to Philadelphia as part of this robust West India Trade, and all were on offer in the city’s ports for export, as well as its public markets and many taverns.
And, where the High Street Market sheds met the Delaware River, the harbour was jammed with trading ships loaded with olive oils from Spain; wines and oranges from Portugal, France and Germany; and tea from China – all part of the vast commercial network that made Philadelphia the busiest port on …….