At the time of the American Revolution (around 1775) colonists were still eating a primarily British diet, consisting of meats, stews, puddings, breads and sweets, with limited vegetables. Beer, ale and cider were frequent beverages. For the more affluent, there was port wine and some liqueurs. After the death of Martha Jefferson in 1782, widower Thomas was given the appointment of “minister plenipotentiary” (your basic diplomat) by the newly formed U.S. Congress and dispatched to France. Thus began the life of a major foodie, wine connoisseur and kitchen gadget aficionado (we’re talking France, here, the country known for haute cuisine). There he discovered fine dining, olive oils, tasty mustards, succulent cheeses and pastries, all unique foods that were virtually unknown back in the Colonies. And he was hooked. Grow your own olive trees.
On his second trip to France, Jefferson took a young male slave with him for culinary training and returned home in 1789, bringing some of his favorite delicacies with him, along with 680 bottles of wine (wine connoisseur extraordinaire). He also brought home his newest gadget acquisitions, which included the first ice cream freezer, a cheese grater and a pasta maker. Although unsuccessful in starting a sizeable vineyard for domestic wine production on his Monticello property, he was an enthusiastic gardener and horticulturist. Along with numerous vegetables familiar to the area, he introduced and successfully cultivated eggplant, okra, tomatoes, garlic, lima beans, peanuts, and hot and sweet peppers, all of which had previously been considered Mediterranean warm climate vegetables, virtually unknown to the British diet. Over his lifetime, he experimented with organic gardening, developing new species and grafting fruit trees to produce flavorful fruits. He literally changed the landscape of gardens from colonial times forward. Historians estimate that he was responsible for growing 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs, and 170 varieties of fruits.
Dinners at TJ’s included copious meats and fowl for his guests, but he preferred the majority of his own meal to consist of many fresh vegetables from his garden, with plenty of imported wines to wash down everything. You definitely wanted to be on his invite list. After a typical dinner at the White House or Monticello, one can only surmise that the gentlemen retreated to the library to imbibe in tobacco, cognac and perhaps a few loud belches, then nodded off. The ladies retired to the parlor, where some of them would have let out a few notches on their corsets. Little wonder, with the description one guest recorded in her diary as a “casual” dinner: a light rice and bean soup, roast beef, turkey, lamb, ham, veal cutlets, fried eggs, macaroni, a variety of fresh vegetables, and a final course of pudding, fruit, cheeses and ice cream with sauce. Accompanied by plenty of imported wines, of course. As a recognized gourmand, Jefferson frequently advised other luminaries and American presidents on menus for state dinners, and helped enlighten chefs with proper preparation of his unique recipes.
Clearly we have Jefferson to thank for introducing America to a potpourri of new dishes, with many ingredients fresh from his gardens: french fries, peanuts, Johnny-cakes, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pudding, sesame seed oil, fried eggplant, and those great American staples, tomato ketchup, pumpkin pie and mac and cheese. He also introduced ice cream to astonished dinner guests. Combining Western European gardening with his unique Monticello cooking, he enjoyed merging different cuisines and experimenting with new vegetables and fruits. Fortunately for future generations, TJ frequently wrote down recipes during his European travels, as well as recording menus and collaboration with his chefs. His daughters and grandchildren preserved some of those precious recipes for perpetuity.
Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable man. A visionary, a gourmand, author, wine connoisseur and Southern gentleman. One can only fantasize what his dinner guests experienced. Were he alive today, there is no question he would have his own show on TV’s Food Network.