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Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father & French Foodie

by | Jul 4, 2020 | Uncategorized

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, a man of varied talents and interests, was also passionate about food. The time he spent in Paris added to this enthusiasm. As America’s third president he was, among many things, a distinguished statesman, the founder of the University of Virginia, an architect, and inventor. But his interests in horticulture and expertise in wine probably fueled his interest in food.

The French customs and culture he observed during his five years in Paris left a lasting impression on him. Historian Damon Lee Fowler stated: “Jefferson’s years in Paris made a permanent imprint on his food habits.”

As U.S. minister plenipotentiary to France, Jefferson delighted in the French “arts de la table” and the Gallic emphasis placed on beautifully presented, high-quality food.

Jefferson’s Personal Chef Trains in Haute Cuisine

Thomas Jefferson arrived in France in 1784 with his family and several servants from America, one of whom was his chef, James Hemings. He encouraged Hemings to pursue the finest instruction in French cuisine, arranging apprenticeships with haute cuisine chefs. The training took place mainly in Paris and later in the prestigious kitchens of the Chateau de Chantilly, home of the prince Louis-Joseph de Bourbon.

Hemings responded well to the professional demands and rose quickly through the kitchen ranks. His Parisian mentor promoted him to “chef de cuisine” allowing him to command a team of local cooks.

Hemings’ talents served Jefferson well, as the American statesman entertained lavishly during his time in Paris. American dignitaries in France such as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams dined with Parisian high society guests – 30 at a time – at Jefferson’s residence near the Champs-Elysées.

Here’s an easy recipe James Hemings mastered during his apprenticeship at the Chateau de Chantilly. It was most likely a forerunner to the Apple Fritters served later on at Jefferson’s Monticello estate:

Recipe for ” Fritters à la Chantilly ”

Ingredients:
1 lb of flour
3 eggs
Cream Cheese
White Wine
1 oz powdered sugar
Salt
Fat for boiling (lard was used at the time)

Instructions:

  1. Stir the flour, eggs and cream cheese together thoroughly
  2. Add a little bit of white wine, 1 oz of powdered sugar, and a pinch of salt
  3. Plunge a spoonful of this mixture into boiling fat, then drain
  4. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Apple Fritters sprinkled with powdered sugar
A modern version of Monticello’s Apple Fritters sprinkled with powdered sugar

Enchanting Southern France and a Dream Burial Site

Thomas Jefferson’s tour of the French countryside in 1787 was one of his favorite visits: he loved visiting the south of France which he called, in a letter to his secretary in Paris, William Short, “the land of corn, vine, oil, and sunshine. “
He asked Short that in the event that he dies in Paris, he be buried in the south of France: “I am sure it will bring me to life again.”

Jefferson’s love of olive trees

Thomas Jefferson was enthralled with the olive trees of the French Riviera. The statesman-horticulturist considered it one of the most valuable of plants, stating it “contributes the most to the happiness of mankind.”
He wrote the following comment to the chair of the South Carolina Society for Promoting Agriculture in 1787 :

The olive is a tree the least known in America, and yet the most worthy of being known. Of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious, if it be not the most precious. Perhaps it may claim a preference even to bread, because there is such an infinitude of vegetables, which it renders a proper and comfortable nourishment.”

Yes, the great statesman was in a way saying- back in the 18th century- that olive oil will make vegetables so delicious you will eat your veggies!

He became an advocate for growing olive trees in the U.S. and discussed the idea with the Marquis de Lafayette. He was amazed that an olive tree could survive and be productive in rugged terrain. He calculated that the oil the trees produced probably supported the livelihood of half the villages of Provence.

Jefferson’s Ambitions for Wine in America

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both admirers of French wines and during their travels in Europe. They would often spend more on wine than on food.

Jefferson became one of America’s foremost experts on wine and wine-making in his time. His European travels through England, France, Italy, Holland, and Germany from 1786 to 1788 were used to gather information about agricultural products he hoped to develop in America.


In addition to enjoying vegetables with olive oil in southern France, Thomas Jefferson also discovered the mutton, poultry, pork, and rabbit dishes of the region served with heavily flavored garlic sauces. He found the local table wine or “vin ordinaire” to be excellent.

However, he had another view of wine when he was invited to dinner by Henri Bergasse in Marseilles, one of France’s most important wine merchants at the time. He showed Jefferson one of his wine cellars after dinner, holding casks with the equivalent of 1.5 million bottles of wine.


Jefferson’s visit to wine-producing regions in France and Italy was an information-gathering trip for an industry he hoped to develop later on in the U.S..

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All photos courtesy of Unsplash

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