John Dabney was a giant of 19th-century Richmond high society. He was a fixture of sophisticated gatherings, a connoisseur of the era’s delicacies (terrapin stew, canvasback duck, "hail-storm" mint juleps), and a family man who with his wife raised five children — among them, schoolteachers, a professional baseball player, and a musician-turned-newspaper editor. He was much admired; four Richmond newspapers noted his passing in 1900. Yet the man who knew how to craft what those papers called "immortal foods" was also defined by what prevented him from doing even more. Dabney, an African American, spent his first 41 years enslaved.
Looking over the sweep of Dabney's life, we see food and drinks, with high style to spare. Looking closely, we see much more. Dabney's story illustrates slavery and freedom in 19th-century Virginia in unexpected ways, while revealing the life of an individual little-known now but unmissable in his day.