Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, that amazing genius and inventor, and — according to the late food writer, Karen Hess — probably America’s first real gourmet. Any lover of books, art, architecture, wine, and food should dream of visiting this place at least once. [Note: It’s the only house declared a UNESCO World Heritage Centre in North America.]
Jefferson’s two-acre potager (loosely translatable as “kitchen garden”), located on the southeastern side of what used to be the slave quarters and a sort of industrial area, Mulberry Row, stirs up desires in cooks of all ages. The bounty and the beauty take your breath away, not to mention the stunning view of tree-covered rolling hills and distant mountaintops.
It’s hard to remember that plantation life was anything but romantic.
On my recent visit to this shrine to the power of the intellect (and the enslaved hands of Africans), a friend (and Monticello’s expert on Southern slave life), Dr. Leni Sorensen, met with me and discussed the fascinating research of the Monticello staff.
But let’s not be naïve — Jefferson could never have accomplished what he did without the help of his slaves, most of whom could be considered true professionals according to Sorensen.
Thanks to the efforts of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the garden still produces abundant vegetables and demonstrates how Jefferson intended the growing season to extend into the winter months, because of the garden’s location, offering protection from the north winds and foul weather.
Here are some of the vegetables that Jefferson’s cooks no doubt prepared in a French manner after his return from France.
When you walk into the kitchen, you will see immediately the profound influence on Jefferson of his years in France (1784 – 1798) as trade minister and later Foreign Minister for the newly born United States.
The cookbook entitled La Cuisinière Bourgeoise (full text in French), by Menon, first published in 1746, likely stood on a shelf in Martha Wayles Jefferson’s kitchen.
While Jefferson did not write as copiously on food and cooking as he did on wine, unfortunately, he did record some “Observations on Soup”:
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.
Jefferson no doubt would love this recipe for Bouillabaisse d’asperges (Asparagus Bouillabaisse), from Lydie Marshall’s Chez Nous: Home Cooking from the South of France (1987):
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
3 T. flour
6 cups light chicken stock
3 pounds asparagus, tough ends removed, and cut crosswise into halves
1 sprig fresh sage
2 t. salt
Toasted bread squares
Aioli, homemade garlic-flavored mayonnaise
In a large pan, heat the oil, whisk in the flour until the mixture is smooth, and then whisk in the boiling stock.
Bring again to a boil and add the asparagus stalks, sage, and salt (adjusted to account for the saltiness in commercial chicken stock if you do not make your own.) [Note — naughty you if you don’t!]
Cover and simmer 30 minutes.
In a food processor, purée the soup in batches. Taste and correct seasoning.
Reheat the soup. Serve toasts and aioli on the side. Each guest swirls a scoop of aioli in the bouillabaisse or spreads it on the toast and adds that to the soup.
© 2010 C. Bertelsen