Friday, November 9, 2012

"Boil 2 quarts of milk with a large piece of orange peel"

Thomas Jefferson has always been one of the more enigmatic founding fathers for me. I don't necessarily agree with his politics but the aspects of his life that interest me most are his interests in science, gardening, and food. As an outspoken advocate of states rights, he nonetheless engineered one of the greatest overreaches of Federal power with the Louisiana Purchase, and then sent Lewis & Clark exploring with instructions that included bringing back new and edible plants. As ambassador to France Jefferson seemed more interested in the food and wine that so generously accompanied Paris social life, even bringing along one of his slaves to take cooking lessons.

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J. Craughwell looks more closely at this time he spent as ambassador. Slavery was illegal in France and James Hemmings could have simply claimed his freedom, but Jefferson made an agreement with him that he would free him after he had taught another slave the art of French cooking (no such agreement was made with Sally Hemmings, who came to France to care for Jefferson's daughters).

The French have never been slouches when it comes to food fashions. From the sumptuous, lengthy, and extravagant meals of the aristocracy came a new sensibility and awareness of food that the aristocratically-minded Jefferson lapped up. And not only did he ship home olive trees, grape vines, and cases of the finest French wines and champagnes (Jefferson made champagne popular in America), he also brought back dishes like macaroni and cheese, french fries, and creme brulee, which were later served at Monticello and the White House during his two terms as president. (He even smuggled some Italian rice, but it didn't grow well in America.)

This is not an in-depth history of Jefferson's meals, and the slave James Hemmings plays a very minor role. Instead Craughwell fills in information about the foods that were popular in America and France at the time and explains how the French excesses (including food-related) influenced the French Revolution. And this sort of background history that is often glossed over in many history books is what makes this one interesting. Likewise, I enjoyed the short appendixes discussing the kinds of foods grown in Jefferson's gardens and his fascination with wine. And Jefferson did eventually grant James Hemmings' freedom, but it took six years and some complaining from James before it happened.

But foodies looking for details about Jefferson's dinner table or James Hemmings’ recipes may come away with more historical background than actual information. I suspect the kind of mundane stuff like what was for dinner simply wasn't thought important enough to be recorded and become part of the historical record (this was in the days before sharing such information on Facebook became fashionable). There are a number of pictures of letters and documents - some in Jefferson's hand - showing his notes and some of the recipes, but they're difficult to read. Still, the book was kinda fun and short, but for a more detailed look at his gardens I recommend Andrea Wulf's Founding Gardeners. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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