America’s first foodie: Thomas Jefferson’s storied legacy includes bringing French cuisine to the States
"Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee" looks at the third U.S. president through the prism of his love of France and his bringing his slave James Hemings to learn to cook in the French style. (Quirk Books/MCT)
The next time you pop a french fry into your mouth or throw some olive oil into the frying pan, thank Thomas Jefferson.
For it was Jefferson who popularized those foods in the United States. More than just individual food items, Jefferson was a player on a much larger scale. He brought French cuisine to America.
And as the title of a new book points out, the author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president did not do it alone.
“Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America” is Thomas J. Craughwell’s well-researched look at the impact Jefferson and Hemings had on our eating habits.
The author says that during the 20th century, Americans came to regard French cooking as the epitome of fine dining, and Julia Child’s 1961 classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” made French cuisine accessible to everyone. “She is widely believed to be responsible for single-handedly introducing Americans to French food,” he writes. “That is a misconception, of course; the real credit goes to a founding father and one of his slaves.”
Americans were introduced to French cooking during the American Revolution. Our French allies brought cooks as well as troops. But French cuisine had no staying power here; after independence, the French returned home, and America went back to decidedly more mundane menus.
“The mainstays of American colonial cooking,” Craughwell writes, “were primarily meats (boiled, roasted, baked or stewed), breads, heavily sweetened desserts and generally overcooked vegetables.”
Jefferson went to Paris in 1784 on a government appointment. With him was 19-year-old Hemings, whom Jefferson wanted trained in French cooking. He was apprenticed to Combeaux, a caterer, where, Craughwell says, he had to learn French as well as culinary skills. (The author points out that Hemings soon spoke better French than Jefferson ever did.)
A fascinating underlying dynamic of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is the fact that Hemings was not only a slave but was also related to the Jefferson family. Hemings’ father was John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. That made him a half-brother to Jefferson’s wife, Martha. When Wayles died, Jefferson inherited the Hemings family (including James’ younger sister Sarah, or Sally, with whom Jefferson allegedly had at least one child).
France didn’t allow slavery; in fact, during his apprenticeship in Paris, James could have gone to court and been granted his freedom. Jefferson and Hemings, though, worked out an agreement. He promised Hemings his freedom if he would learn French cuisine and pass that knowledge on to a successor back at Monticello. (Jefferson lived up to the bargain, though a series of unforeseen circumstances delayed Hemings’ freedom until 1796, six years after his return to America.) Eventually, his younger brother, Peter, took over the kitchen.
James’ skills are evident not so much in his recipes — only eight of his written recipes survive, though another 150 from Monticello are attributed to him — but in the fact that when Jefferson entertained, the lavish meals were Hemings’ handiwork.
Writes Craughwell: “The meals he prepared (at Jefferson’s home in Paris) must have met the highest French standards, because Jefferson did not hesitate to send dinner invitations to some of the most distinguished and discriminating men and women in France.”
When Jefferson later entertained back in America, this same French cuisine dazzled his countrymen.
One interesting story in the book tells of a “business dinner” between Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The evening was an opportunity to discuss two issues that were dividing the country’s leaders: a plan for the federal government to assume states’ War of Independence debts and the establishment of the nation’s capital in a location that would become Washington, D.C. By the end of the night, the conflicts had been settled over a dinner prepared by Hemings (and reconstructed by historians).
For someone who influenced American food and who had a firsthand view of Jefferson and other luminaries of the day, Hemings left a thin record. After gaining his freedom, he went to work as a cook, first in Philadelphia and later in a Baltimore tavern. In 1801, Jefferson, now president, offered him the position of chef at the President’s House (as the White House was called at the time). Apparently interested, Hemings sent word back, asking for more details. But Jefferson never responded and hired another chef.
That summer, Jefferson left the capital and returned to Monticello for an extended vacation; he invited Hemings to return and handle the cooking, which he did. When Jefferson returned to Washington, Hemings went back to his job in Baltimore. In September, Jefferson got news that Hemings, after a night of heavy drinking, had killed himself. He was 36.
Hemings, Craughwell writes, “set the standard for Jefferson; for the rest of his life, he would have either a French chef or a slave who had been trained in the art of French cuisine to serve in his kitchen.”
∎ Culinary influence
Thomas Jefferson was one of the great original foodies. Here are three examples:
Champagne: He popularized Champagne by serving it at nearly every dinner he hosted at the President’s House. A wine connoisseur, he was especially fond of some of the best France had to offer: Chateau d’Yquem, Chateau Margaux and Latour were among his favorites. How serious was he? In the case in which he carried his toothbrush, he also carried a corkscrew.
Mac and cheese: Did Jefferson or Hemings invent it? No. But they did elevate the pasta-and-cheese dish to new levels in America.
Vegetables: A vegetable lover, Jefferson cultivated plants that most of his neighbors had never heard of — broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and peanuts — and served them at formal dinners.