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Thomas Jefferson: Founding Foodie

By Kristin Hinman
10/2/2017 • American History Magazine

The new French stove is installed. The dumbwaiters are operational. Housemade cider, beer and French wine fill the cellar at Monticello in anticipation of Thomas Jefferson’s homecoming.

After serving two terms as president, Jefferson is ready to retire from public life for good. “Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power,” he writes. And he’s eager to return to his beloved swath of paradise near Charlottesville, Va. Worried that precious little has been planted—“no oats sown, not much tobacco seed, and little done in the gardens”—he acquires seeds for his treasured tennis ball lettuce, prickly seeded spinach, and sugarloaf cabbage before bidding farewell to his favored Washington, D.C., growers.

On March 11, 1809, Jefferson mounts a horse at the White House and heads home. Toward the end of the four-day trip, a gust of wintry weather threatens to strand him. But he presses on for the last eight long hours through a most “disagreeable snow storm,” knowing that soon he will be able to devote his attention to spring peas and enjoy the brilliant hues of broccoli—white, purple, green—all in a row. Jefferson is 65, his rod-straight frame capped by a tuft of strawberry-blond hair gone fully gray. He is fending off arthritis and migraines, and positively wearied of politics. Though his retirement will hardly amount to idle puttering—he will pen thousands of letters and found the University of Virginia—Jefferson’s greatest joy will come from planting a seed and annotating when its edible gift comes to table. “I am constantly in my garden, as exclusively employed out of doors as I was within doors in Washington,” he will write, “and I find myself infinitely happier in my new mode of life.”

Jefferson’s ideal for America had sprung very directly from the relationship he thought his countrymen should nurture with the new republic’s vast lands. “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” he wrote. “They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.” A free farmer was a prosperous farmer; a collection of prosperous farmers was a harmonious democracy.

Jefferson himself was a horrendous failure as a cash-crop farmer. Yet he obsessed over the vegetables and fruits he grew for his own table and he was forever in quest of seeds for new and delicious edibles to expand the American palate. His kitchen garden was revolutionary for its great diversity, its seasonal and low-tech, very “casual and pragmatic” approach, says Peter Hatch, director of gardens and grounds at Monticello. Multiple varieties of one species grew simultaneously; the failures were instantly weeded out. “It was very American in that way: all about results.”

Jefferson was also an avid epicure who loved nothing more than to gather family, friends and, yes, political foes, over finely cultivated and thoughtfully prepared food. His table was informal and democratizing, a place to elicit common interests over a pastime all men shared: dinner.

Central to Jefferson’s attitude toward food was a belief in the complementary attributes of the Old and New Worlds— the same notion that compelled him to construct an Italian-style mansion on a rural Virginia mountaintop. Whether in his orchard, where he planted French fig trees near American dessert apples, or at his table, where he poured French and Italian wines after serving smoked Virginia ham and okra soup, he strived to blend the absolute best of both worlds.

Jefferson will always be best remembered, of course, as the founder who declared that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” His legacy as a champion of seasonal eating and gastronomic pleasure may be lesser known today, but it is no less secure. Says Hatch: “He was the first gardener, the first wine-lover, the first foodie.”

The house at Monticello, which Jefferson began constructing in 1769, at age 26, was finally completed in 1784. But the land he hoped to seed there would have to wait. Instead, Jefferson found himself temporarily ensconced in a fashionable home near the Champs Élysées in Paris, drawing up plans for a courtyard garden.

George Washington had named Jefferson a minister to the court of France’s King Louis XVI. On one of his early outings to a market, Jefferson tasted apples vastly inferior to his prized Newtown Pippin from Virginia. So began a five-year mission to introduce his French colleagues to the great delicacies of his homeland. He got friends and Monticello caretakers to dispatch him seeds for his favored wild honeysuckle, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, watermelon and more. He spread the seeds widely, and in his own garden he grew the Indian corn he loved for his breads, grits and roasted ears.

Meanwhile Jefferson developed a mighty appetite for French fare. From haute cuisine at the king’s palace, to the Parisian cafes and bistros then becoming popular, to the stylish salons at private homes, he hobnobbed over gourmet gastronomy in many settings. “He was dining in the houses of French nobility from day one, and had the best food available in the world,” says Cinder Stanton, a senior historian at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Wine, too. At that time, Virginians primarily drank fortified wines like Madeira and port, so to have access to the French varietals was a revolutionary experience.”

Jefferson crisscrossed vineyards throughout Burgundy and Bordeaux, the Loire Valley and the Riviera, tasting vintages from the most fabled names in wine: Château Lafite, Clos de Vougeot, Château d’Yquem. Elsewhere he discovered other culinary delights, such as waffles in Holland and macaroni and Chianti in Italy. Mediterranean bounty—its figs and capers, almonds, walnuts, oranges and pomegranates— delighted him immensely.

“I am now in the land of corn, wine, oil, and sunshine,” he wrote while sojourning through southern Europe in 1787. “What more can one ask of heaven? If I should happen to die at Paris, I will beg of you to send me here, and have me exposed to the sun. I am sure it will bring me to life again.”

Jefferson wasn’t gallivanting purely for gustatory pleasure. He rode to Italy, for example, on a quest to learn more about Italian rice, which Europeans considered superior to the Carolinian variety. He was desperate to expand economic markets for American farmers—so desperate that he risked the death penalty to purloin some of the prized Piemonte grains and illegally expatriate them to the U.S. “I could only bring off as much as my coat and surtout pockets would hold,” he wrote.

On the same trip, Jefferson became enchanted with the olive trees of Aix-en-Provence, France. “Of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious, if it be not the most precious,” he proclaimed. Jefferson treasured the olive’s oil for salads and was sure that if the trees were cultivated in the southern U.S., “every man will become a consumer of oil.” More than a decade later, in a personal laundry list of accomplishments that he assembled prior to assuming the presidency, Jefferson would cite his introduction of the olive tree to the States alongside his efforts to end slavery.

When at last it was time to return to America in 1789, Jefferson had his crates stuffed with silver and porcelain, a battery of copper cookware, 680 bottles of wine and a plethora of delicacies including Parmesan, mustard, raisins, anchovies and cheese. He would later place annual orders for similar provisions with an agent in Marseilles. “These things were shipped on a regular basis,” says Stanton.

Determined to have some of his favorite French dishes recreated back at home, Jefferson also took care to put down instructions for Savoye cookies (“butter a cake mould and dust with sugar…”), wine jellies (“take 4 calves feet and wash without taking off the hoofs…”) and ice cream (“put the cream on a fire in a casserole first putting in a stick of vanilla…”).

When Jefferson was elected president a decade later, he relied on food as a political elixir. George Washington and John Adams had thrown regular open houses for the public while in office. But Jefferson abandoned the practice upon moving to Washington in 1801 in favor of a new custom: the White House dinner party.

Jefferson limited each guest list to roughly a dozen. Federalists came one night and Republicans another. Jefferson forbade any talk of politics until the lawmakers cleaned their plates. Taking a cue from the French, Jefferson figured that if his colleagues could learn to be civil with each other while discussing art or religion or agriculture over a delicious meal, they would be more likely to agree with each other at the Capitol the following day.

He hosted guests in the smaller, more intimate of the house’s two dining rooms and abandoned rectangular tables for circular ones better suited to conversation, doing away with the undemocratic head of the table. Servants rarely entered the room. Instead, the food arrived via dumbwaiters.

Central to the mission were a highly trained staff—with two Frenchmen in charge—and only the finest provisions. Étienne Lemaire, the White House maitre d’, shopped daily at Washington’s two farmers markets to furnish Honoré Julien, the chef, with beef and chicken, ducks and pigeons, shad and oysters, nuts and chocolate.

No doubt nostalgic for his absentee garden at Monticello, Jefferson delighted in accompanying Lemaire when his schedule permitted. For the eight years of his presidency, in fact, Jefferson kept a log showing when 37 fruits and vegetables came into season in Washington. There were sprouts from February through May, parsnips from June through April, lima beans in August and eggplants in October.

“According to one of his friends, Margaret Bayard Smith,” recounts Hatch, “Jefferson went to his contacts at foreign embassies who would vie with each other to give him really unusual vegetable seeds. He’d in turn pass them out to different [Washington] farmers to grow, and then he’d tell his maitre d’ to pay the highest price for the best and earliest produce.”

The presidential table was thus seasonal, diverse, abundant. A guest in 1802 recalled the “rice soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef, a piece called macaroni which appeared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not agreeable….Ice cream very good, crust wholly dried, crumbled into thin flakes: a dish somewhat like a pudding—inside white as milk or curd, very porous and light, covered with cream sauce—very fine. Many other jimcracks, a great variety of fruit, plenty of wines, and good.”

After the tablecloth was removed, the “jimcracks”—dried fruits and nuts—came out with the wine. Breaking again from tradition, Jefferson didn’t allow toasts. “He thought it made men into brutes,” explains Stanton. “It was another thing he’d learned in France about how civilized dinners could be.”

Though not new in America, Jefferson’s French-inspired ice cream was a regular feature at the White House dinner parties and annual public open houses. On a Fourth of July gathering one year, Lemaire hired an additional worker to churn the cold dessert for the many hundreds of guests. “People in Philadelphia had been serving ice cream since the Revolution,” says Stanton, “but by giving it such a prominent place, Jefferson did put it on the map in a way.”

Such lavish spreads commanded sizable portions of Jefferson’s $25,000 yearly salary (and contributed to his legendary debt), yet apparently impressed the court of public opinion. As one guest observed: “He is accused of being very slovenly in his dress…but however he may neglect his person he takes good care of his table. No man in America keeps a better.”

One thousand feet long. A total of 600,000 cubic feet of earth leveled. Covering more acreage than a modern football field, and boasting more than 300 produce varieties from America and Europe. Jefferson’s kitchen garden at Monticello was monumental. “He probably assembled more vegetables than had ever been assembled by any man in one place before,” says Hatch.

Jefferson had been growing edibles for decades, and he inquired after his plants in letters to his daughters, begging to know nature’s course. “Swallows and martins appeared here on the 21st of April,” he wrote from New York in 1790. “When did they appear with you? And when had you peas, strawberries, and whip-poor-wills in Virginia?”

“Gardening and food provided, I think, this sociability,” says Hatch. “He used plants as a way of relating to friends, family, neighbors and political allies. He’d preface letters about the future of the American republic with mention of how seeds and plants were doing at Monticello. He’d tell his daughters and granddaughters, ‘I can’t wait to come home so we can sow our cabbages together.’”

Jefferson’s fixation with gardening seemed to provide him needed relief during stressful periods. To wit, he put the finishing touches on the plans for his grand kitchen garden at Monticello in the years just before he retired from the presidency, as he pushed a controversial embargo act and dealt with Aaron Burr’s alleged treason and trial. Other kitchen gardens of the period featured English implements such as hothouses and radiant walls in an effort to beat the seasons, and, say, harvest asparagus in January instead of April. Jefferson’s garden design called only for seeds, soil and sun. The point was to eat in harmony with the seasons: strawberries in June, endive in December. “This concept of the American garden was revolutionary,” according to Hatch.

Jefferson kept a meticulous garden diary in his twilight years, and is thought to have done some seed sowing himself. “One can imagine him out here in his seventies, a little bent over with arthritis, infirm and a little aged, in his boots, measuring things and sowing his peas,” says Hatch. On March 23, 1809, only nine days after retiring to Monticello, Jefferson’s precious peas were the first to go into the new garden.

It was a Jeffersonian tradition that the first Albemarle County planter to bring a spring pea to table hosted a neighborly feast (on peas). Jefferson was rarely a winner, yet everyone knew he was crazy for the vegetable. When visiting his secondary residence in the area of Poplar Forest, “people would have planted their gardens early to have peas to give to the retired president,” explains Hatch, “like a homecoming gift—sort of like jelly beans were to Ronald Reagan.”

As in Washington, the retired president was a desirable dinner companion. Legions of visitors came to eat at Monticello— sometimes more than four dozen at once. Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern, slaves who trained under Honoré Julien at the White House, lit the kitchen fires before dawn in order to have the day’s main meal ready by 3 p.m.

Jefferson had installed the same accoutrements he’d enjoyed at the White House: an eight-burner French-style stove system suited to nuanced heating and cooling, dumbwaiters and a door-size lazy Susan. He liked to serve the meals himself. Says Hatch: “He called them his feasts of reason.”

No complete menu survives. But the Monticello table offerings are thought to have been more rustic, less refined, if no less delectable. Daniel Webster called the cuisine “half Virginian, half French style.” Jefferson’s favorite beef bouilli, a boiled beef, was likely laid out alongside dishes crafted from tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbages and okra. There were anchovies from France, cod from New England, canvasback ducks sent by the chef Julien.

Jefferson primarily ate produce. He was known to be a sucker for rutabagas and lettuce, for the Marseilles fig and for tarragon vinegar. “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet,” he wrote to a doctor in 1819.

As much as it was a social lubricant and food source, the kitchen garden was equally an “experimental laboratory” for Jefferson, according to Hatch. Jefferson long tried to breed multiple varieties of a species to find its best traits. “The seed-y evangelist,” as Hatch likes to call him, received an annual delivery of seeds from the king’s botanist in France and regular packages from a Philadelphia grower. Salsify came from Meriwether Lewis after his great Western expedition, a “hot bird” pepper came from an army officer stationed in Texas, and benne, or sesame, came from New York.

“[Sesame] is among the most valuable acquisitions our country has ever made,” wrote Jefferson. “It yields an oil equal to the finest olive oil. I received a bottle of it, and tried it with a great deal of company for many days, having a dish of sallad [sic] dressed with that and another with olive oil, and nobody could distinguish them.”

There was really only one problem with the garden: its southeasterly orientation toward an intense sun that scorched it all day long. “The history of gardening at Monticello is not so much a testament to Jefferson as this wizard of a horticulturist—because he confessed to fail more than any other gardener had ever done before—but rather a testament to his optimism and innocence and love of gourmet things,” says Peter Hatch. “These are the real themes at the heart of the Jefferson and the American experience.”

Even at age 83, Jefferson was thrilled when he read a newspaper account about 4-foot-long cucumbers grown in Ohio and promptly composed a letter seeking help in acquiring seeds. “This vegetable being a great favorite of mine,” he wrote, “I wish to take the chance of an improvement.”

Seven months later, on July 4, 1826, Jefferson died. And what of his last meal? “There’s a great family story, this legend that Jefferson ate a cucumber three days before he died,” says Hatch, with a laugh. “I love that! Killed by a cucumber! It’s such an interesting story. I can’t really believe it. But, he did have this late-in-life fascination with cucumbers.”

 

Kristin Hinman is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C..

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.  

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