Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the same day as his friend and later adversary, John Adams.
Of all the Founders, Jefferson seems the most present, the most human in his contradictions and passions. He wrote the world’s preeminent statement of freedom, yet kept slaves. He extolled the virtues of an agrarian life, yet found enlightenment in Paris.
When he was sent to Paris in 1784 as the American commerce commissioner, Jefferson traveled with his eldest daughter and his slave, James Hemmings, who was to be apprenticed to a French chef and bring what he learned back to Monticello.
Jefferson would also learn from France. He wrote, “A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” While Hemmings brought his new found skills to Monticello’s kitchen, Jefferson carried back the lessons of architecture and the salon style of politics at the table.
Following in the footsteps of Annette Gordon Reed and Leni Sorensen, in Creme Brulee, Craughwell uses social history to expand our notions of slavery and politics. He describes the city that inspired Jefferson, including the markets it took to feed the city’s one million residents, the surrounding farms and gardens, and the cookbooks of the time. It was a rich culinary environment, shaped by the chefs who served the nobility and the salons where the food was served as well as by the traiteurs, bakers, and charcuteries that served the bourgeoisie.
In this environment, Jefferson developed a taste for wine and refined cooking. He travelled the France with a corkscrew in his kit, admiring Roman ruins and learning from vignerons.
Meanwhile, Hemmings received an education unavailable in America—both in technique and ingredients–as an apprentice to the Prince of Conde’s chef. As a royal prince, Conde lived luxuriously and Craughwell writes, his chef “was an absolute master” of “refined imaginative dishes served with style,” who could cook as well as manage a hierarchy of kitchen servants. Hemmings learned to manage a coal-fired stove, to speak French, and to cook with macaroni, truffles, olive oil, and champagne.
And so what were the dishes? 150 recipes survive, eight in Hemmings’ own hand. They include the Crème Brulee of the title and Macaroni and Cheese, which Jefferson would serve at the White House, helping solidify its place as an American classic. To make that simple dish, Jefferson relied on what Hemmings had learned in the Prince’s kitchen and on the Italian pasta maker that was among the crates of kitchen and serving equipment shipped back to Monticello.
While Hemmings was making the food, Jefferson used the dishes in the French salon style of politics. In France, Jefferson hosted a dinner for National Assembly delegates in an attempt to find unanimity on a French constitution. Despite a discussion of “chaste elegance” during the six hour dinner, no accord was reached and the Revolution took hold.
But a pattern of dinner table diplomacy was set and Jefferson would have better luck in brokering a deal between Madison and Hamilton that allowed the federal government to take on state’s debts in exchange for moving the capital from New York to the Potomac.
Jefferson’s extraordinary garden, cellar, and kitchen may have helped establish macaroni and cheese and a national capital, but refined dining became a liability as the political pendulum swung to the homespun. And as each president has found since—whether it’s ketchup or broccoli—you are perceived as what you eat.