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America’s founding foodies. November 19, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. All of us at Poor Richard’s Almanac are fans of America’s Founding Fathers, especially our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin. So I was thrilled to find a book on a recent shopping expedition that combined my love of the Founders with my love of cooking. It’s Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee (Thomas J. Craughwell, Quirk Books, Philadelphia, 2012, $19.95). The subtitle says it all: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America.

Jefferson is revered by many as the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and viewed by many as the most intellectual of the Founders. (We think they’ve somehow forgotten Dr. Franklin.) He’s seen by others as the Founding Hypocrite, the man who preached liberty for all while holding (and selling) slaves. He is widely believed to have fathered six children on his slave, his wife’s half-sister Sally Hemings (a claim hotly disputed by his legitimate descendants), yet he freed neither Sally nor her children. He was so addicted to personal luxury that at his death, his descendents had to sell Monticello to settle his debts.

This is hardly the profile of a man who lived by principle. And yet it is Jefferson, his Louisiana Purchase, his Lewis and Clark Expedition, who made America the great nation it became. (Credit also goes to Jefferson’s old political rival, Alexander Hamilton, who envisioned the strong central government that forged the United States rather than a federation of individual states.)

James Hemings, another of Martha Jefferson’s half-siblings, was Sally Hemings’s older brother. Thomas Jefferson thought all the Hemings family were unusually talented, and when he was appointed ambassador to France, he took James Hemings with him. He made a most unusual deal with James: If James learned to cook French cuisine and taught the skill to another Monticello slave, Jefferson would grant him his freedom. It was a promise that Jefferson, if belatedly and reluctantly, kept: James was the only slave he ever freed.

In France, James Hemings learned fluent French and apprenticed with France’s finest chefs. He was chef de cuisine at Jefferson’s mansion in Paris and later at his home in New York (then the capital of the U.S.) when Jefferson became Secretary of State. He taught his brother Peter Hemings the art of French cooking, and after gaining his freedom, cooked professionally in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

James’s story, and his role in bringing French cuisine to America, is given as much play in Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee as the author could give them, drawing on every surviving account to sketch a portrait of the man and his times. The book is obviously also about Thomas Jefferson’s years in France and his lifelong love affair with French food and wine. (One of the most interesting passages is about Jefferson’s tour through France and northern Italy, seeking out and spending time with the great wine producers and wine merchants, and learning everything he could about wine.)

But ultimately, Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee is about French cooking during the reign of the ill-fated Louis XVI, the 32-course dinners, the delicate fare. (A specialty of the time was disguising dishes so they looked like something else, creating an apparently delightful surprise for diners when they cut into a peacock and discovered it was actually a rabbit or fish.) The author’s discussion of the presentation of food (by the time it was ceremoniously paraded to the upper-class table, it was invariably cold) and table manners (forks weren’t adopted by most Americans until the mid-1800s) is the real heart and hook of the book.

If you’re thinking of cooking a la Jefferson, you won’t find much to go on here. You’ll discover the dishes Jefferson and James Hemings introduced to America, such as French fries (known simply as fried potatoes, pommes de terre frites, in France), macaroni and cheese, creme brulee, and a recipe for making coffee. But to find usable recipes, you’ll need to refer to Marie Kimball’s Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book (1938, reprinted Garrett and Massie, Richmond, VA 2004). 

When we think of French food today, we don’t tend to picture mac’n’cheese, French fries, and coffee. Rather than picturing McDonald’s fries, Cracker Barrel’s mac’n’cheese, and Starbucks’ or Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee, we’ll at least imagine Julia Child and her boeuf bourguinon, famous Michelin-starred French restaurants or their American cousins like The French Laundry and Le Bernardin, baguettes and croissants, or luscious French cheeses like Roquefort, Camembert and Brie.

But clearly, while potatoes may have originated in the Americas, those pommes frites dished up by the ton at Mickey D’s, and their trans-Atlantic cousins of fish and chips fame, originated in pre-revolutionary France and were served to royalty at Versailles.

Strange but true: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were responsible for popularizing potatoes in France. They not only ate potatoes, they wore potato flowers in their lapels and hair, creating a rage for all things potato. Fried potatoes really were French fries. If Marie Antoinette had said “Let them eat potatoes” rather than “Let them eat brioche” (an expensive, “refined” bread; she didn’t actually say “Let them eat cake”), perhaps the French revolution would have been averted.

But I digress. If you love food history or early American history, you’ll enjoy a romp through Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee. And if you’d like to see at least one Hemings get his due, this book is a great place to start.

             ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

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