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The Man Who Abjured His Native Victuals

Thomas Jefferson’s flirtation with French cuisine.

By From the July - Aug 2012 issue

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ABOUT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON ON MAY 7, 1784, not long after dinner had been served at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson sat down to write a brief but newsy note to his friend and protégé, William Short. “Congress have to day,” Jefferson wrote, “added me to the commission for negotiating treaties of commerce with the European powers.” He hadn’t even booked passage, nor begun to pack, but already Jefferson’s ever-busy brain had had an inspiration about what he might accomplish in Paris, and he was not thinking as a commerce commissioner. “I propose for a particular purpose to carry my servant Jame with me,” he told Short. “Jame” was 19-year-old James Hemings, one of Jefferson’s slaves. And the “particular purpose” he had in mind was to bring James to Paris so he could be apprenticed to French chefs, and Jefferson could thus enjoy the exquisite cuisine of France when he returned home to Virginia.

How Jefferson learned about fine French cuisine is an open question. As a young man, when he was studying law with George Wythe in Williamsburg, Jefferson was often included in dinner parties at the Governor’s Palace; it’s possible the governor’s chef had a few French recipes. Jefferson had friends from France who very likely would have told him about the splendors of their cuisine. Then again, he may have learned of French cuisine in that most Jeffersonian of ways: by reading about it.

The cooks at Monticello—all of whom were slaves—prepared what was known in the American South as “plantation fare.” Breakfast could include freshly baked bread, corn pone, pancakes, cold ham, chicken, and several types of hash, washed down with tea and coffee. Dinner, especially when guests dined with the family, was heavy on meats: baked ham, roasted turkey, boiled mutton, and roast beef, plus raw oysters, many vegetable dishes, and salad tossed in vinaigrette dressing, with nuts, puddings, stewed fruit, fresh fruit in season, and perhaps calf’s foot jelly. On special occasions or holidays, the menu might include roast pig. In August 1773, Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, recorded that, in the space of three weeks and two days, the household and their guests had consumed “6 hams, 4 shoulders, 2 middlings [of bacon]… 3 loaves of sugar in preserves, one ditto in punch.” No Monticello menus have come down to us, but thanks to the approximately 150 Jefferson family recipes that have survived, we have a fair idea of what the Jeffersons ate. Meals included early American comfort food such as catfish soup, beef stew, and apple dumplings, as well as dishes that showed the influence of Monticello’s African cooks, such as okra soup and gumbo.

Jefferson’s desire for a French chef was not a sign that he was a food snob. He enjoyed plantation fare, so much so that while he was in Paris, he developed a Hankering for smoked Virginia ham and Indian corn. But he also had a taste for the best, and French cuisine was said to be the best in the world. His passion for good food was a natural extension of his passion for gardening and his fascination with plants. His gardens were not simply decorative; they produced the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that fed his family. They were also botany laboratories where he experimented to see which varieties of fruits and vegetables would thrive in Virginia. In 1770, behind Monticello, he had his slaves cut a large terrace from the side of the mountain and clear the ground for a kitchen garden that ultimately would grow to be 1,000 feet long and 80 feet wide. In time, it would produce more than 300 varieties of vegetables.

JAMES HEMMINGS MUST HAVE SHOWN some promise in the kitchen; why would Jefferson risk an expensive culinary education on a young man who had no talent for cookery? But James is an interesting choice in other ways as well. The Hemingses were the most privileged slave family at Monticello. All of them worked in the house; none of them were field hands. Jefferson had inherited the Hemingses from his father-in-law, John Wayles. For several years Wayles had kept one of his slaves, Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, as his concubine; they had six children together, among them James, the future French chef, and Sally, widely believed to have been Thomas Jefferson’s concubine. The Hemings children were the half-brothers and halfsisters of Jefferson’s wife, so they were not just Jefferson’s property, but also his in-laws.

Having James apprentice to French chefs was an inspired idea, but it became problematic even before he and Jefferson left America. France permitted slavery in its colonies, such as Haiti, but not in the mother country itself. The moment James set foot on French soil, he could claim his freedom, and there was nothing Jefferson could do to stop him. So Jefferson made him a deal: If James mastered French cuisine, then returned home to Monticello to train another slave, Jefferson promised him his freedom.

To say that France was an eye-opening experience for both men is an understatement. It began the moment Jefferson and James came ashore. Jefferson had studied French as a young man, but his tutor had been a Presbyterian minister with a Scots burr so thick it mangled proper French pronunciation. When Jefferson spoke what he believed was French, no one could understand him. In Virginia, Monticello was a mansion and Jefferson an aristocrat. Compared to the sprawling palaces of France, however, Monticello was an outbuilding. And when it came to clothes, compared to the French nobility in their suits of silk, velvet, or brocade, Jefferson dressed like a hick. (One of the first things Jefferson did when he arrived in Paris was order a new wardrobe.)

As for James, Jefferson apprenticed him to a restaurateur and caterer named Combeaux. Under Combeaux, James learned the basics of French cooking methods. He also began to learn French by total immersion. Eventually, James would speak French more fluently than Jefferson, who never mastered the language. James’ apprenticeship lasted three years, concluding in the spring and summer months of 1787, when he studied under the chef of the Prince of Condé. Initially, his lessons were held in the kitchen of the prince’s palace in Paris, but the final weeks of his training took place at the prince’s country chateau, Chantilly. Meals at Chantilly were sumptuous, and had been since the 17th century when Louis XIV came to dine. As a result, James’ training in the culinary arts under the prince’s chef meant that he was learning the most sophisticated techniques of French cuisine from an absolute master.

When he entered Condé’s kitchen, James joined an exclusive all-male world. In France, female cooks were acceptable in the homes of the bourgeoisie, but among the upper classes, a woman in the kitchen was un thinkable. La cuisine de femmes meant “home cooking,” a phrase which French chefs and French gourmands alike scorned. What the French up per crust desired -- and so did Thomas Jefferson, for that matter -- was haute cuisine: re fined, imaginative dishes served with style.

With his apprenticeship complete, James took over as chef de cuisine at Jefferson’s Paris home, the Hôtel de Langeac on the Champs-Elysées. Jefferson entertained often, and his dinner guests were among the most sought-after people in Paris, including the Duke de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, the Princess de Lubomirski, and Maria Cosway, an English artist, musician, and socialite for whom Jefferson developed a very serious romantic attachment.

Now that Jefferson had a French chef, he realized he had to refit Monticello with French kitchen equipment. In the fall of 1789, as he prepared to return home to Virginia, Jefferson filled 86 crates with kitchen utensils and gadgets, including copper sauté pans, kettles, dessert molds, and the long, lozenge-shaped pans known as turbotieres that French chefs used when cooking fish. To ensure that he would always enjoy freshly made macaroni (what we call pasta), Jefferson purchased a macaroni machine. In addition to crates of wine, he brought along foods he had come to love in France but knew were unavailable in America: olive oil, Parmesan cheese, dates, and Maille mustard, his favorite. He also wrapped up seedlings for four apricot trees, four Crassane pear trees, and one white fig tree, all of which he planned to plant in his “Fruitry” at Monticello.

JEFFERSON AND JAMES arrived home two days before Christ mas. With James in the kitchen, Jefferson began introducing his family and guests to dishes unknown in this country, including des pâtes à la sauce Mornay and pomme de terre frites à cru, en petites tranches, better known today as mac and cheese and French fries. For dessert, James might produce crème brûlée -- the first time it had ever been made in America -- and a bit of kitchen wizardry that encased ice cream inside a warm, flaky pastry. As word spread in Virginia of the remarkable meals that were being served at Monticello, Patrick Henry, one of Jefferson’s most bitter political opponents and a culinary chauvinist, denounced Jefferson as a man who had “abjured his native victuals!” Like most charges that political opponents hurl at one another, this one was not true. Jefferson didn’t abandon his native victuals; he married them to French victuals.

The man who made that possible was James Hemings. It is unfortunate that we do not know more about him, and a loss to culinary history that more of his recipes have not survived. His cooking set the standard for Jefferson, who, for the rest of his life, would have either a French chef in his kitchen, or a slave who had been trained in French cuisine by James or one of his successors.

One day in 1802, a Philadelphia judge, Mahlon Dickerson, dined at the President’s House (as the White House was called at the time). It must have been a memorable meal, because Dickerson wrote afterward that Jefferson “takes good care of his table. No man in America keeps a better.” It is the type of compliment Thomas Jefferson and James Hemings would have savored.

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About the Author
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of "Our Sunday Visitor’s Patron Saints," and of the forthcoming "St. Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found, and Then Lost and Found Again."