Thomas Jefferson: The Francophile Who Became the First U.S. “Foodie”

thomas-jefferson-2Thomas Jefferson. President. Scientist. Writer. Man of many passions, some hidden, some not.

In his writings and in his actions, food clearly revealed itself as one of those passions.

Above all, Jefferson was a Francophile.

From the design of his dining room in his house, Monticello, to the gardens surrounding him in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from Paris to the White House — Jefferson’s obsession with food and its preparation inspired him to train his African slaves, particularly James Hemings, in the art of French cooking, while he kept detailed ledgers concerning vegetable prices in Washington, D.C.’s street markets. He dreamed of Virginia becoming a wine-producing state, along the same lines as Burgundy or Bordeaux.

Monticello

Monticello

Jefferson bequeathed so much to the fledgling new country he helped form with his pen, the phrase “We the People … ,”  books at the Library of Congress, the University of Virginia, his home Monticello.

Library shelves sag with the weight of the books written by and about Jefferson, proclaiming his far-reaching influence on government, education, and wine.

Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello, tended in his lifetime by African slaves, still inspire lovers of local foods.

He spent $500 of his own money on food at the White House each month, the purchases duly recorded by his maitre d’, Etienne Lemaire, whose Day Book (1806-1806) is one of the few records of what went on Jefferson’s plate. Written in a fascinating French-English patois, Lemaire’s lists included the following:

Vegetables

thomattes (tomatoes)

quarottes (carrots)

du omene (hominy)

laitue de Fairfax (Fairfax County lettuce)

arecost blanc (white beans)

epinards (spinach)

pomes deter (potato)

baril de cornichons (barrel of gherkins)

barill de craker (barrell of crackers)

plus ‘trois peck de sweet patates’

Karen Hess

But, ironically, given his passion for food and cooking, a full analysis of his impact on American cuisine has yet to be written. Food historian Karen Hess intended to write a definitive history, but died before she could complete the work.

Hess’s chapter in Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance (edited by Damon Lee Fowler), “Thomas Jefferson’s Table: Evidence and Influence,” exposes the bare bones of the subject.

Hess reminds us, or rather exhorts us, that “The French were here long before Jefferson’s time, even in Virginia, and they are responsible for strong French traces in traditional Virginia cookery, a fact not always taken into account by either food historians or Patrick Henry.” (Patrick Henry railed against Jefferson, saying that he “abjured his native vittles in favor of French cuisine.”)

True, but a glance at the English cookbooks of the period, no doubt used by the early presidents, shows that French cuisine infiltrated English kitchens. And influenced cookbook authors like Eliza Smith, Hannah Glasse, and Maria Eliza Rundell.

Restored Kitchen at Monticello

Restored Kitchen at Monticello

Interestingly, Jefferson’s kinswoman Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife (1824) mentions a recipe for “Bell Fritters,” which according to Hess, is identical to one recorded by Jefferson’s French maitre d’hôtel Lemaire at the White House. Similar to beignets, these fritters look like small bells and behave just as cream puff dough does.

Très français. Very French.

BELL FRITTERS

From The Virginia House-wife

Put a piece of butter the size of an egg into a pint of water, let it boil a few minutes, thicken it very smoothly with a pint of flour, let it remain a short time on the fire, stir it all the time that it may not stick to the pan, pour it into a wooden bowl, add five or six eggs, breaking one and beating it in, then another, and so on until they are all in and the dough quite light, put a pint of lard in a pan, let it boil, make the fritters small, and fry them of a fine amber colour.

For more on Jefferson and food:

The Potager of Thomas Jefferson: A Kitchen Garden in Photos, blog post by Cynthia Bertelsen (2010)

Food tour from Monticello

Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine, by Prscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (2006)

The Cultivated Life: Thomas Jefferson and Wine‘ (film, 2005)

Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance, edited by Damon Lee Fowler (2005)

The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, by Sarah N. Randolph (2010)

The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine, by Dave Dewitt (2010)

French Gastronomy, by Jean-Robert Pitte (2002)

The Gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, by Peter J. Hatch (1998)

The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson, by William Howard Adams (2000)

Passions : The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson, by James M. Gabler (1995)

Thomas Jefferson on Wine, by John R. Hailman (2009)

Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book, by Marie Kimball (2004)

Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, edited by Edwin M. Betts (2001)

Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, edited by Edwin Morris Betts and Peter J. Hatch (2001)

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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7 comments

  1. I love the franglais barril de sweet patates. Vraiment? I’ll have to teach that to my second semester French students.

    Jefferson’s garden at Monticello is one of most interesting I have ever visited. I purchased some of his tomato seeds, but Monsieur Jefferson’s tomates didn’t adapt well to our S. California climate. I had such hope for them! He was more than a foodie though. He was un epicure et un gourmet!

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