Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightened Palate

Thomas Jefferson was always a slender man. He ate sparingly – but what he ate was always magnificently prepared from the finest ingredients available.

thomas jefferson

The quintessential portrait of Thomas Jefferson, the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan of our Founding Fathers.

Thomas Jefferson was unquestionably born with a brilliant and curious mind. As the poster  child of The Enlightenment, that 18th century assemblage of fine minds and challenging principles, he was also the most cosmopolitan of all our Founding Fathers. Even today he would have few rivals in the breadth of his varied cultural interests. This devotion to the finest that civilization has to offer also extended to his dining table.

A youthful Jefferson was invited to dine with the Colonial governor at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, VA from time to time.

He was one of the most promising students at the College of William and Mary in the colonial capital of Williamsburg, Virginia, and thus exposed to the most sophisticated culture to be had in the American Colonies.  As such, he came to the attention of Francis Fauquier, Virginia’s Colonial Governor, and had the good fortune to be invited to dine at the Governor’s Palace from time to time. Thomas Jefferson’s innate sense of the finer things blossomed. A decade later, surrounded by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, et al, he was included in the highest levels of Philadelphia academic and social society.

TJ:  Discovering the World of Cuisine

When Jefferson was sent to Paris as a diplomatic envoy in the early 1780s, his eyes, mind and disposition were wide open to explore every European custom, culture and nuance he could find.

Delighting in the cuisine that has always made France stand above all others, Jefferson’s palate was treated to the best prepared foods in the world, served in the most elegant style. Ditto the wines and liquors. He  sent for his slave James Hemings and enrolled him in a culinary school where he could learn to prepare the dishes the future President so admired – and the French were so good at inventing. Years later, as President, Jefferson invited a Frenchman named John Souissant to come from Paris to supervise the White House kitchens and table. It is said that it was Jefferson who brought the recipe for ice cream back to America. Maybe. Maybe not. But it makes for a good story.

There is another story that he smuggled back grains of a special type of rice in his pockets, since it was illegal to remove the product from Europe. It is further said that the rice now grown so successfully in the Carolinas comes from Jefferson’s adventures as a smuggler.  Again, it may be apocryphal, but it sounds so much like Jefferson!

He also sent back wine by the barrel and throughout his life, many would claim he had the finest wine cellar in the country.

TJ: The Master Gardener

Jefferson’s interests always included anything benefiting agriculture. He loved farming; he loved the science of farming, and could arguably be considered the country’s first agronomist.  He nursed the budding science along in whatever infancy there was of it. His gardens at his beloved Monticello estate were his lifelong passion. He imported seeds and cuttings of various plants that he felt would grow well in American soil.

Jefferson’s “kitchen” gardens at Monticello are more than a football field in length, and produce dozens of varieties of vegetables.

Jefferson seldom ate meat or game or fowl, and then only sparingly. He preferred fish. But it would be vegetables he craved above all else. His football-field (truly!) kitchen garden at Monticello still is cultivated today with the varieties of vegetables Jefferson so carefully nurtured himself. Dozens of varieties of peas, his favorite vegetable, abound. So do several varieties of squash and lettuce, peppers and even tomatoes – which had been shunned by many as being poisonous. His account books diligently note the month and day of the first plantings, buddings, fruits and pickings of every crop on the plantation.

TJ:  Extraordinary Host

As President and in retirement, the sophisticated Mr. J. preferred the intimacy of the “small” table, rather than the large formal banquets of the European courts. He believed it was easier to engage in conversation with a smaller group.

monticello dining room

Whether at Monticello or the White House, Thomas Jefferson always preferred the “small” table. A dozen or so select people were much more to his liking than the throngs.

Guests would always be welcome at his Monticello, and many would grace the always-generous Jefferson table every evening. He made certain that every attention was paid to the preparation and elegance of his dining room. To add to the comfort, and reduce the distractions of table service, he designed and installed a hidden dumbwaiter, so that warmed plates could be sent from the kitchens below directly to the dining room via pulleys.

Monticello plantation would and did provide much of the produce for the President’s table at the White House. In the early days of America, the President was expected to provide for his guests personally from what was considered a sumptuous salary. (There was no budget for entertaining.) Wagons filled with the fruits of Monticello gardens were regularly brought to Washington. The wine cellar was a fountain. No expense was spared.

monticello

Jefferson’s magnificent Monticello in central Virginia. It is said by some to be the most beautiful house in the country.

Thomas Jefferson’s gracious hospitality and penchant for living in elegance proved his undoing, and a major cause of his financial woes late in his life. For a man so devoted to meticulous record-keeping – including every expense – he fell painfully short in providing for his own security in old age. He would die nearly bankrupt, and even attempted to raise funds by auctioning his beloved Monticello in a lottery to pay his mounting debts.

For more than a half century Monticello suffered neglect, disrepair and near ruin. During the Civil War, the gracious mansion stabled Confederate horses. Finally it was rescued by private citizens and returned to the glorious estate Thomas Jefferson would be proud to own today. And the opulent and well-tended garden still thrives today. It provides fresh produce for the community, and its income makes it self-sustaining.

Jefferson would be amazed! Then he would be delighted.

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (at William & Mary College), and has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program.
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