~ This is the fifth in a series of posts about Presidential Food.
No President outshines Thomas Jefferson when it comes to
food and wine — the appreciation, consumption, and cultivation of it were for him lifelong passions.
An enlightened epicure, his table included Southern staples such as Virginia ham, black-eyed peas, corn, venison, sweet potatoes, and turnip greens, alongside the many French dishes he first tasted in Paris while serving as foreign minister for four years. He loved entertaining, and impressed his guests with “sinful feasts,” featuring as many as a dozen desserts, including blanc mange, meringues, and macaroons.
He was a connoisseur of fine wines, and considered it, along with olive oil, to be a necessity of life. Four to six wines (imported by the barrel from France, Italy, Spain and Portugal) were served at his dinners. He was attentive and particular when it came to food preparation, and insisted on serving seasonal produce at its peak. Of course he grew everything on his estate, practicing a very scientific approach to horticulture.
In his Garden Notebook, Jefferson meticulously recorded information about everything he planted — facts about all the seeds he imported from Europe or acquired from neighbors, to include dates of planting, first leaves, first harvest, first appearance at table, etc.
You probably know about his 1000-foot long vegetable garden at Monticello, where he cultivated over 300 varieties of about 70 species of vegetables, including at least 30 varieties of peas (his favorite). His garden was his laboratory: “I am curious to select one or two of the best species or variety of every garden vegetable, and to reject all others from the garden to avoid the dangers of mixing or degeneracy.”
Though he’s not considered a vegetarian by today’s standards, vegetables did make up much of his diet. Salads were especially important to him, as was the cultivation of sesame and olives (to make dressings). Besides English peas, he loved asparagus, artichokes, eggplant, tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower.
He also had an eight-acre “Fruitery,” which included a South Orchard of 400 trees (peach, apple, cherry), two vineyards,”berry squares” of currants, gooseberries, and raspberries, and a nursery where he propagated fruit trees and special garden plants. His North Orchard consisted of only apple and peach trees, and was more a “farm orchard,” since the fruit was harvested for cider, brandy, or livestock feed. Together, the fruitery and farm orchard represented “the best of the European heritage combined with a distinctive New World vitality and personality.”
Because Jefferson was a widower when he was elected President, his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, along with Dolley Madison, often served as hostesses for gatherings at the President’s House (White House). Martha included many of her father’s favorite recipes in her 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife.
What I found especially interesting was Jefferson’s preference for small, private dinners, served daily at 4 p.m. He favored the more relaxed nature of these over the aristocratic levees of the Federalists. His guests were carefully chosen to facilitate social harmony — he never mixed political parties, or invited Cabinet members along with Congressmen. They were seated at round or oval tables to promote conviviality and a feeling of equality, and were encouraged to speak freely on all subjects. The use of a dumb waiter insured privacy.
Jefferson was most famous for the policy of “pell-mell,” which allowed for diplomats or foreign ministers to sit next to family members or strangers, without precedence. He said, “When brought together in society, all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office.”
One of his guests remarked: “Never before had such dinners been given in the President’s house, nor such a variety of the finest and most costly wines. In his entertainments republican simplicity was united with epicurean delicacy; while the absence of splendor, ornament and profusion was more than compensated by the neatness, order, and elegant sufficiency that prevaded the whole establishment . . . ”
Though none of Jefferson’s dinner menus has survived, there are private accounts such as this one, by the Reverend Cutler, who said the menu included:
“rice soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlet of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef…” and “a pie called macaroni.” For dessert there was “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 creamsauce – very fine.” In addition to all of this, Jefferson served “other jimcracks, a variety of fruit, plenty of wines, and good.”
Speaking of ice cream, Jefferson has been credited with recording the first American recipe for it (which he brought back from France), although it was Washington who supposedly owned the first ice cream freezer. Jefferson also introduced macaroni and vanilla to the U.S., and purchased a waffle maker from Holland. Wherever he traveled in Europe, he tasted the local cuisine, recorded recipes, and once back in the U.S., imported the delicacies he especially favored.
The Jeffersonian tradition of fine cuisine was inherited by all six of his granddaughters, who hand-copied recipes — whether from old family cookbooks, or the chef, the steward, or neighbors — into notebooks. These were considered to be one of their greatest treasures as they set up their own households as new brides.
Some of these recipes, along with recipes Jefferson brought back from Paris, are included in Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book, by Marie Kimball, considered by Craig Claiborne to be “the most comprehensive work yet compiled on Jefferson’s gastronomic adventures.” It’s a fascinating read, with an excellent essay,”Thomas Jefferson . . . Gourmet,” by Helen D. Bullock.
Only ten recipes survived in Jefferson’s own handwriting; I was especially happy to see this one:
Observations on Soups
Always observe to lay your meat in the bottom of the pan with a lump of butter. Cut the herbs and vegetables very fine and lay over the meat. Cover it close and set over a slow fire. This will draw the virtue out of the herbs and roots and give the soup a different flavour from what it would have from putting the water in at first. When the gravy produced from the meat is almost dried up, fill your pan up with water. When your soup is done, take it up and when cool enough, skim off the grease quite clean. Put it on again to heat and then dish it up. When you make white soups, never put in the cream until you take it off the fire. Soup is better the second day in cool weather.
Monticello.org is a veritable gold mine of information about Thomas Jefferson, comprehensive and beautifully presented. The resources for kids and teachers are invaluable, especially the Jefferson Encyclopedia and the Monticello classroom.
Also check out:
Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance, edited by Damon Lee Fowler (University of North Carolina Press, 2005). A gorgeous book with background essays by experts about how Monticello cooks were trained, what part African Americans played in Monticello’s food culture, and how Jefferson mixed diplomacy with food. Recipes too!
My favorite picture book biographies of Jefferson:
Thomas Jefferson, by Cheryl Harness (National Geographic, 2007). Engaging text and wonderfully detailed illustrations.
Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biography, by James Cross Giblin (Scholastic, 1994). A stately text illuminated with exquisite oil paintings.
And a thoroughly delightful, funny story kids will love:
A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar, by Candace Fleming, pictures by S.D. Schindler (DK Ink, 1999). The people of Cheshire attempt to make the country’s biggest cheese when they hear Jefferson was serving Norton cheese at the White House. The result? A wheel that stood four feet high and weighed 1,235 pounds! Needless to say, Jefferson served Cheshire cheese for a long time after that.
Thomas Tidbit: Jefferson can also be considered to be the bravest gourmet President, since he once smuggled Italian rice in his coat pockets. This was a crime punishable by death, but he liked the rice so much he took his chances!
*All photos and quotes from Monticello.org website.