Today is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, and what might the president, on his special day, have had to eat?
Perhaps chicken fricassee, baked Virginia ham, or bouilli—beef boiled with onion, carrots, turnips, and celery, and topped with a mushroom-and-caper sauce. Any of these may have been accompanied by asparagus or peas, both of which—according to Jefferson’s meticulously kept Garden Book—were often available from the Monticello gardens by early April. And the meal may have been polished off with ice cream, pastry, pudding, or crème brûlée, and followed up with an after-dinner glass of Madeira, which Jefferson believed was good for the health.
Whatever was served on the Jeffersonian birthday table, it was almost certainly delicious. Unlike Bill Clinton, whose favorite meals once featured cheeseburgers and Egg McMuffins, or George H.W. Bush, who touted pork rinds, popcorn, and hot dogs, Thomas Jefferson was renowned for his discerning and sophisticated taste in food.
Of his many accomplishments, the three that Thomas Jefferson chose to be engraved on his tombstone were his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, and the founding of the University of Virginia. He didn’t mention French fries, champagne, macaroni, waffles, ice cream, olive oil, or Parmesan cheese. In fact, these probably didn’t even make it into his top tombstone ten, but Americans owe him a considerable debt for expanding our diets to include these items. Without Jefferson, we might just possibly still be stuck with cornmeal mush and dried-apple pie.
Though common dogma holds that French cooking arrived in the United States in 1961 when Julia Child’s now-classic, 524-recipe Mastering the Art of French Cooking hit the stands, Thomas Craughwell, author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée, argues that it arrived much earlier, with Thomas Jefferson and his French-trained chef/slave, James Hemings. And, despite Jefferson’s passionate interest in all things food, Hemings gets the hands-on credit here. Jefferson, for all his talents, was no cook. According to his household staff, Jefferson never entered the Monticello kitchen except to wind the clock.
During his five years as American minister to France, Jefferson reveled in French culture. He went to concerts and plays, visited the Louvre, bought furniture, silver, paintings, sculpture, mirrors, and kicky kitchen equipment: He came home with a coffee urn, a pasta machine, a waffle iron, ice-cream molds, and a bowl for cooling wine glasses.
And he certainly enjoyed fine food. He had offered 19-year-old James Hemings his freedom if James would learn French cuisine and pass it on to cooks at Monticello. James seems to have more than lived up to his half of the bargain. He became fluent in French and was soon such a skilled cook that Jefferson’s dinner parties, attended by the best and the brightest in France, were famous for scrumptious dishes.
Despite unsubstantiated culinary legend, Jefferson didn’t invent any of the foods that are associated with his name. Instead, since the public paid avid attention to what was served on the president’s table, he had a bully pulpit for popularizing his favorites. For example, ice cream. While ice cream in one form or another had been around for hundreds of years, Jefferson’s recipe is the first recorded by an American, and it was during his administration that it became an increasingly universal treat. The president seems to have favored it encased in pastry. Guests to the President’s House (now White House) describe “balls of frozen material” in a pastry crust. When Jefferson’s French cook, Honore Julien, left the president’s service in 1810, he opened a confectionary business, offering ice cream to customers on Sundays and Wednesdays. By 1824, when Mary Randolph (a Jefferson relative) published The Virginia House-Wife, she included twenty different recipes for ice cream, including one flavored with oysters.
Similarly, Jefferson was a proponent of the now all-American standard: macaroni and cheese. In fact, he served it at a state dinner in 1802.
Not everybody appreciated Jefferson’s culinary predelictions. Patrick Henry— obviously a cornmeal mush man—excoriated him for abjuring “his native victuals in favor of French cuisine.” According to his granddaughter, Jefferson’s preference for such dishes as bouilli and crème brûlée caused his enemies to accuse him of colluding with Napoleon Bonaparte.
Jefferson, however, had a foot in both food camps. While supporting foreign newbies such as olive oil, champagne, and Parmesan cheese, Jefferson also promoted the best of foods from home. French apples, for example, didn’t meet his standards: announcing that there was nothing in Europe to compare to the Newtown pippin, he begged James Madison to ship him a barrel. In his French garden, he grew American corn. During his years abroad, he missed Virginia hams (“better than any to be had”) in France and he ordered American shipments of pecans and cranberries.
Thomas Jefferson may have been America’s first foodie—the first to embrace today’s acceptance of a vast and fascinating range of cuisines. Today we leap insouciantly from sushi to tacos, lasagna to Yorkshire pudding to paella to boeuf bourguignon—but historically that hasn’t been the case. For many, it was at Thomas Jefferson’s table that people had their first taste of a new food world.
Perhaps even more important, Jeffersonian dinners were known not just for creative food, but for social connections and lively conversation. An often-repeated quote by John F. Kennedy, remarking on a White House dinner of Nobel Prize winners, references “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Thomas Jefferson, however, did his best never to dine alone.