A trophy cup, awarded to African American culinary trailblazer John Dabney for his famous mint julep cocktails heaped with fresh fruit and flowers, returns to Richmond — at long last.
Dabney achieved extraordinary success as a chef and restaurateur in 19th-century Richmond. In 1860, Dabney was not yet a free man when his unparalleled mint julep earned first prize in a contest in Warm Springs, Va. The Warm Springs Hotel awarded him $100 in gold.
Back in Richmond, the enslaved Dabney ran the kitchen and bar at the tony Exchange Hotel & Ballard House, a popular 19th-century hotel at 14th and Franklin streets until its closure and demolition in 1900 — shortly after the newer and tonier Jefferson Hotel opened. Dabney received a silver cup with the inscription “Complimentary to John Dabney from the citizens of Richmond Va. Champion Julep.”
On Saturday, Nov. 6, Dabney’s storied cup returned to Richmond, where it will be exhibited at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in its newly expanded galleries slated to open next spring. The $30 million expansion will fundamentally re-imagine the museum and its mission. In a partnership with the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, the VMHC’s expanded galleries and educational programming are intended to tell a more inclusive narrative of the state’s history.
As part of “Ghosts in Virginia’s Kitchens,” an event hosted recently by the Fire, Flour & Fork culinary festival in Richmond, Neval Featherstone of Orlando, Fla., gave a lecture on the Dabney family. Featherstone, a relation by marriage, three generations removed from the chef-caterer, surprised the VMHC audience by presenting Dabney’s champion cup and announcing he would donate it to the museum.