At a dinner honoring forty-nine Nobel laureates, President Kennedy looked around and pronounced that this was the “most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
That Thomas Jefferson was brilliant is undeniable. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He founded the University of Virginia. He was a renowned horticulturalist, botanist, and architect. He was an accomplished inventor, designing the Lazy Susan, a folding chair, and a pedometer, though he refused to pursue a patent on any of them.
That Thomas Jefferson dined alone is more suspect. Jefferson was often surrounded by company – whether he was in Paris, Washington, or Monticello – as his passion for food and fine wine was contagious. Indeed, Jefferson hosted a dinner party almost every night, building political and social relationships around his dining table.
Jefferson has long been considered our nation’s first gourmet. Even before he became President, and even before his travels abroad, his knowledge and awareness of food were well-developed. At an early age, he spoke enthusiastically of the fresh vegetables he grew in his garden, and kept a working chart of when certain ones were available.
For health reasons, Jefferson limited the amount of meat he ate, though “not as an aliment, so much as a condiment to the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.” While not a true vegetarian, he did eat an unusually small amount of meat for his time. Given the state of his garden, it’s easy to see why. Jefferson’s garden at Monticello was laid out in 80-foot plots, covered nearly two acres, and featured more than 250 varieties of herbs and vegetables and 150 varieties of fruit, many of them considered exotic, and some that were even thought to be poisonous, like the tomato.
But of all the items in his garden, his olive tree and his peas held a particular place in his heart. His garden held over 30 varieties of peas, and the olive tree, in his opinion, was “the most worthy of being known. Of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious.” Beyond the olives and peas, Jefferson’s garden featured cabbage, artichokes, eggplants, radishes, corn, beans, squash, Italian fig trees, and an orange tree.
As he noted in a letter to the artist Charles Wilson Peale, “Nothing is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.”
In 1785 Jefferson was appointed minister to France, taking over for Benjamin Franklin. When he learned of his new diplomatic post, Jefferson paid for James Hemings, one of his slaves, to accompany him so that he could learn “the art of cookery.” This was not Hemings’s first exposure to French cuisine. Jefferson had paid for a French chef to train Hemings while they lived in Annapolis, Maryland.
While abroad, Jefferson kept a meticulous journal of the foods he found with the hope that he might have them recreated (Jefferson did not do much cooking on his own) at Monticello. In France, he sampled ice cream and chocolate, in Italy, macaroni and cheese, and in Holland, waffles.
He kept an equally detailed list of the wines and vines he encountered, which was typical of Jefferson’s love of fine wine. Wine, he believed, was a “necessary of life.” His cellar contained wine bottles from several different European nations, and he always served wine with dinner, believing it was good for one’s health. Jefferson shared this knowledge of wine with other Presidents, advising Presidents Washington, Adams, Madison, and Monroe on the best wines for executive functions. While in Paris, he grew grapes in his garden in the Hotel de Langeac, along the Champs-Elysees. He would later plant a vineyard at Monticello.
While he was abroad, the Hotel de Langeac became the scene of many lavish dinners, where Jefferson entertained his friends from both sides of the Atlantic with some of France’s best wines. But even Jefferson grew tired of French cuisine at times, instructing his friends to send him seeds for pecans, cranberries, corn, cantaloupe, watermelon, and sweet potatoes, which he found “better than any to be had this side [of] the Atlantic.”
Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789, to accept George Washington’s offer to become the country’s first Secretary of State. Upon his return, he instructed his valet to acquire a “stock of macaroni, Parmesan cheese, figs, raisins, almonds, mustard, tarragon, vinegar, oil, and anchovies,” all largely unknown in the United States at the time. We also have Jefferson to thank for the introduction of crepes, Italian rice, endives, French beans, capers, and pistachios. He also brought Americans the pasta machine and the waffle iron, helping to popularize each of those items. In all, Jefferson brought back eighty-six crates of food (including 680 bottles of wine), art, books, silver, porcelain, and furniture when he returned to the States.
Jefferson’s importation of Italian rice was hardly a simple task. In the 1780s, Italy held a monopoly in rice, and to preserve this monopoly, made smuggling rice seeds a crime punishable by death. Jefferson took the chance, and used the seeds to help rebuild South Carolina’s rice crop, which had been decimated by the British.
In 1801, Jefferson became the third President of the United States. Upon assuming the Presidency, Jefferson hired Honore Julien, a French chef, who would help transform Washington dinners. Looking to the future, Jefferson had Julien train Edith Fossett and Fanny, two of his slaves, so that he could continue to enjoy French cuisine when he left office.
Jefferson’s presidency was marked by great hospitality. Neither Adams nor Washington had hosted such intricate dinners at the President’s House (now the White House). Jefferson also instituted a new dining policy while in office, abandoning the practice of seating his guests according to rank. Instead, Jefferson favored a style described as “pell-mell,” though it was nothing more than “first-come, first seated.”
When Rev. Manasseh Cutler dined with Jefferson in 1802, he sampled this new macaroni dish. “Dined at the President’s, a pie called macaroni which appeared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions or shallots, which tasted very strong, and not agreeable.”
Another guest, Benjamin Latrobe, thought more highly of his dinner with the President. “The dinner was excellent, cooked rather in the French style, the dessert was profuse and extremely elegant. . . .”
But not everyone was pleased with Jefferson’s culinary contributions. Patrick Henry, an early supporter of colonial rights and freedoms, remarked that Jefferson had “abjured his native victuals in favor of French cuisine.”
In the waning days of his presidency, Jefferson began to think about his retirement at Monticello. Without his presidential salary, he knew that he would not be able to maintain the staff he had grown accustomed to. To that end, he arranged for Julian to visit Monticello and organize the kitchen and staff there. Apparently his efforts did not quite succeed, as Jefferson later lamented, “I envy M. Chaumont nothing but his French cook and cuisine. These are luxuries which can neither be forgotten nor possessed in our country.”
Still, Daniel Webster found some French influence while dining at Monticello. In 1824, he remarked that dinner was served “about four o’clock in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance.”
Before Jefferson, American cuisine was characterized by little more than meat and potatoes and the occasional stew. Almost single-handedly, Jefferson transformed America’s pedestrian cuisine into the modern marvel we now know. He introduced the nation to pasta, french fries, ice cream, tomatoes, vanilla, and a host of other fruits and vegetables.
In honor of our nation’s first gourmet, I made Thomas Jefferson’s Chicken Fricassee.
Thomas Jefferson’s Chicken Fricassee
PREP TIME: 10 minutes
COOK TIME: 1 hour
WHAT TO GRAB:
1 to 2 pounds chicken pieces (about 3 or 4 pieces), with bone and skin
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup water
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
1 cup fresh small mushrooms, stems removed and chopped in halves
2 teaspoons sage, chopped
2 teaspoons parsley, chopped
1/2 cup half and half cream
HOW YOU D O IT:
1. Heat a large saute pan with the olive oil over medium heat. While you’re waiting for the oil to get hot, wash and pat dry the chicken pieces. Sprinkle each piece with the salt, pepper, nutmeg, and paprika. Brown the chicken in the hot oil for about 5 minutes on each side, or until well browned. Remove the chicken to a large plate – but only for a moment.
2. Stirring constantly, add the flour to the remaining oil and cook until the flour is lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the water and wine until smooth. Now add the chicken pieces back to the pan and bring to a boil. Once the sauce starts to boil, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes.
3. After 45 minutes, remove the chicken to a clean platter and keep it warm – but again, only for a moment. Strain the broth from the pan into a pourable cup – you’ll grab the broth again in just a second.
4. Melt the butter in the same pan over low-medium heat. Add the onion, and then turn the heat up to medium heat, cooking until lightly browned. Add the mushrooms, sage, and parsley. Now add the broth, cream, and chicken. Cook and stir over medium heat until the sauce and the chicken are thoroughly heated.
5. Serve over a bed of yellow rice!