Thomas Jefferson, America's original foodie

How the Founding Father's love of local produce, French wine, and mac and cheese shaped culinary history

Published July 2, 2011 8:01PM (EDT)

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

The table is set with an elegant fusion of Southern comfort food and fine French cuisine. The beef and lamb are grass-fed; the artisan smoked hams are from locally raised pigs. The produce is locally grown and, of course, organic. All this local bounty is enhanced by fine imports: Italian Parmesan, French wine, and extra virgin olive oil. No, you're not sitting down to eat with Michael Pollan; you're at the table of Thomas Jefferson, statesman and gourmand extraordinaire.

Despite his service as legislator, the governor of Virginia, minister to France, secretary of state, and president of the United States, Jefferson likely believed his famous statement: "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture." In honor of the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, we explore the author's lesser-known contribution to American culture: his influence on the country's culinary tradition.

In an era when red meat and rum predominated, Jefferson directed his prodigious intelligence toward his health. Dinner with Jefferson sounds like dinner with Pollan because much of Pollan's manifesto "In Defense of Food" could be taken directly from the Jefferson playbook: exercise daily, use high-quality olive oil, don't overcook vegetables, practice moderation with complex carbohydrates and red meat, drink wine in moderation, eat plenty of fresh local organic vegetables.

Although organic was kind of a given in Jefferson's world, local was not. Some large Southern plantations were so devoted to cash crops like cotton and tobacco that they imported the bulk of their food. This was certainly not the case at Jefferson's Virginia plantation, Monticello.

A grass path shaded by cherry trees led to Jefferson's vast gardens, where 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs flourished in a patchwork of red earth and flowering bounty. The aisles glowed in jewel tones: midnight eggplants, skeins of scarlet runner beans, the fire hues of Mexican chiles, the flash of nasturtiums, and the new green of broccoli and cabbage. He grew squashes and broccoli imported from Italy, 15 types of English peas, French artichokes, Native American lima beans and African okra. In the orchards below, Indian corn gleaned from the Lewis and Clark expedition would grow amid 170 varieties of fruiting trees and shrubs, including almond, peach and pomegranate. On May 6, 1795, Jefferson noted in his journal, "The first lettuce comes to the table." Jefferson delighted in growing greens, and a typical Jeffersonian salad sounds like something you might get at Chez Panisse. As Peter Hatch, director of the Monticello gardens and grounds, writes: "Monticello salads probably included a mixed bouquet of greens, including spinach and endive for winter use, orach, corn salad or mache, pepper grass, French sorrel, cress, and sprouts." Jefferson's cousin Mary Randolph describes a salad dressing of oil, tarragon vinegar, hard-boiled egg yolks, mustard, sugar and salt. Jefferson, who was obsessed with salad oil, grew sesame for that purpose.

Just as the modern foodie movement arises from great wealth, so Jefferson's culinary legacy is not the work of a poor man. Although Jefferson guided the procurement and preparation of food, he himself did not cook. Slaves carved Jefferson's two-acre garden from a Virginia mountaintop; slaves picked the almonds and apricots in Jefferson's orchards; slaves created the culinary masterpieces for which Jefferson was famous.

In "Notes on the State of Virginia," Jefferson shares his suspicion that blacks "are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." The statement seems hypocritical coming from a man who entrusted his most beloved enterprises to the enslaved: As Jefferson's chef in Paris and then at Monticello, James Hemings prepared sumptuous French creations for elite guests. At Monticello, an enslaved man called Great George oversaw 50 men and was responsible for growing tobacco, one of the plantation's most important cash crops. Peter Hemings, who Jefferson admitted was of "great intelligence and diligence, both of which are necessary," supervised the Monticello brew house. During Jefferson's retirement years his kitchen was ruled by Edith Fossett. Daniel Webster was probably thinking of Fossett's cooking when he described meals from Jefferson's kitchen as "in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance."

Whatever Jefferson's faults, it's hard not to appreciate his boundless curiosity. Jefferson treated all his travels as research expeditions to investigate culinary matters, and his letters are peppered with references to food and farming. After a tour of the Mediterranean, he wrote a glowing treatise on the olive tree, which he saw as a cheap source of fat and nutrients for the poor of the American South: "I see this tree supporting thousands in among the Alps where there is not soil enough to make bread for a single family." Noting that a touch of olive oil rendered vegetables "a proper and codortable nourishment," Jefferson imagined improving the diet of his field workers by planting an olive tree for every slave.

On the same trip, Jefferson tried his hand at smuggling: He discovered that the superiority of Italian rice stemmed from the strain, which was closely guarded. "They informed me that its exportation in the husk was prohibited," Jefferson wrote, "so I could only bring off as much as my coat & surtout pockets would hold." Worried that his pocketful of purloined rice would be insufficient to successfully cultivate the strain, Jefferson arranged for a muleteer to "run a couple of sacks across the Appenines to Genoa."

During Jefferson's years in Paris as minister of France (1784-1789), his idea of perfect cuisine took shape. Though he delighted in French and Italian cheeses and collected recipes and fine ingredients such as mustard, vinegar, raisins and anchovies, he longed to share America's culinary bounty with his European friends: He grew Indian corn in his Paris garden and ordered hams to be sent from Virginia. Much to Jefferson's disappointment, the hams were lost in transit, but perhaps he was able to drown or at least mitigate his sorrows with fine French and Italian wines: When he returned from Paris to the United States, his luggage contained no fewer than 680 bottles.

In typical fashion, Jefferson managed to make these expensive tastes appear virtuous: By swearing off the British colonial habit of drinking port and Madiera in favor of lighter French and Italian wine, he was breaking the yoke of English tradition. "The taste of this country [was] artificially created by our long restraint under the English government to the strong wines of Portugal and Spain," he stated, somehow implying that his enormous collection of French and Italian wine was only an appropriate accessory to democracy.

In a similar vein, he argued another virtue of French wines: lower alcohol content than port. Jefferson was "anxious to introduce here these fine wines in place of the Alcoholic wines of Spain and Portugal." He had high hopes that Americans would follow his righteous example and take to lighter wines. "The delicacy and innocence of these wines will change the habit from the coarse and inebriating kinds hitherto only known here," he wrote. "It is much to the comfort and temperance of society to encourage them."

Jefferson's blessed his favorite wines with his considerable powers of description. Of Nebbiolo he said: "about as sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate as Bordeaux, and as brisk as Champagne. It is a pleasing wine." His writing also conveys his fondness for the ritual of imbibing: He describes a supply of Termo set aside to ripen as "a provision for my future comfort." On his attachment to a light sherry he comments, "If I should fail in the means of getting it, it will be a privation which I shall feel sensibly once a day." But Jefferson was ask quick to point out that he drank only in moderation: "My measure is a perfectly sober one of three or four glasses at dinner, and not a drop at any other time." As secretary of state to George Washington, Jefferson personally ordered the president's champagnes, and in his letters to his friends James Madison and James Monroe, Jefferson imparts political advice and vintner recommendations with equal gravity.

Naturally, Jefferson couldn't forget the lowly masses; in addition to educating his peers, Jefferson lobbied to lower tariffs on inexpensive wines. He hoped that cheap wine would divert the American public from their considerable (and in Jefferson's view harmful) whisky habit. Although Jefferson was unsuccessful in his endless attempts to cultivate European wine grapes, he would have his wish in one regard: Americans today happily do their part for democracy by drinking French and Italian wine.

When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he had the perfect opportunity to shape America's culinary habits. He set such a good table that one political rival accused him of using food to curry favor, but he also used his tenure as president to relax the standards of etiquette at the White House. Whether through ambition, laziness or a genuine dislike of pomp and ceremony, Jefferson affected a "man of the people" persona and eliminated many of the elaborate rituals of the Washington and Adams years. Jefferson sometimes greeted guests in his slippers, and he nixed immense state dinners in favor of "casual" dinner parties for between two and 12 guests, served at an oval table to promote comfortable conversation. Guests were seated randomly, without regard to rank.

Jefferson's social nonchalance was not echoed in his menu: In 1801 the president spent $3,000 on wine and $6,500 on groceries. (For comparison, Meriwether Lewis' salary for the entire year was $500.) Jefferson curated his own White House wine cellar, and he employed a French steward and a French chef. One guest noted that "Jefferson is accused of being slovenly in his dress and to be sure he is not very particular in that respect, but however he may neglect his person, he takes good care of his table. No man in America keeps a better."

Despite his pretensions to simplicity and his own propensity for vegetables, Jefferson was not completely immune to the demands of office and the customs of the time. Sen. Cutler of Massachusetts described being served a meal that included seven varieties of meat: round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, and fried beef. However, even when Jefferson was standing on tradition, he could never resist adding his own touches -- ice cream, wine jelly, or occasionally even something really exotic: mac and cheese.

Although Jefferson was not the first American to serve ice cream or macaroni and cheese, he certainly helped popularize both dishes: The first American ice cream recipe is in Jefferson's handwriting, and at the time of Jefferson's presidency macaroni and cheese was so unusual that the aforementioned Cutler did not recognize the dish and thought that he was being served a crust filled with shallots. He was less than thrilled.

In exploring Jefferson's contributions to American cuisine we can't forget the Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1803, when President Jefferson decided to temporarily ignore his strict interpretation of the constitution in order to buy the Louisiana territory from Napoleon and double the country's size, he greatly expanded the pantheon of American cuisine. Therefore, Jefferson's culinary legacy technically includes Kansas City barbecue, the New Orleans po' boy and any future dish that evolves in the gigantic territory he purchased for a song in 1803.

More specifically, Jefferson personally experimented with the seeds that Lewis and Clark gathered during the first government-sanctioned exploration of the territory. Though the ostensible purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition was to find a river pathway to the Pacific, Jefferson seemed more excited by the prospect of botanic discovery. He eagerly awaited each shipment of specimens and sowed the Monticello gardens with pine nuts from Missouri, snowberry from the Colombia River basin, honeysuckle, sweet-scented currants and Pawnee corn.

Years later, Peter Hemings and Jefferson would figure out how to brew an excellent beer from malted Indian corn. Jefferson would write of the experiment: "We tried it here the last fall with perfect success, and I shall use it principally hereafter." The incident illustrates much about Jefferson's culinary legacy: his reliance on skilled slaves, his enthusiasm for native plants, his dedication to quality, his boundless curiosity, and his desire to have a hand in the production of his sustenance.

Jefferson correctly saw food as a path to good conversation, good health and good times. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness indeed.

By Felisa Rogers

Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at the Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

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