Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America. Thomas J. Craughwell, Quirk Books, Philadelphia. 2012.
Most food historians credit Julia Child with bringing French cuisine to America. With the publication of her famous cookbook and syndication of her popular television shows, Julia admittedly did have a major impact on the culinary trends not only of her era, but perhaps even more so on the contemporary burst of culinary curiosity among regular, non-cheffy types.
In fact though, it was Thomas Jefferson, more than any other American, who most directly impacted the import and even cultivation of European (especially French, Italian and Spanish) gustatory delights As a fan of history, especially American colonial history, I just can’t let that fact lie, hidden behind Mrs. Child’s tomes.
Jefferson, along with Jean Jacques Rousseau and a growing retinue of naturalists and romantics, were proponents of what we would call “the locavore diet”. He grew his own food, including fruits, vegetables, wild game, grains and even nuts, importing essential wine and oils. He meticulously planned and (with the help of his slaves) cultivated extensive gardens that included exotic plantings from all over the world. He desperately wanted a vineyard and cultivated grapes from France. He was unfortunately never successful in that endeavor– ironic, since Virginia is now a major American wine region. Unlucky in his efforts as a vintner, he was nevertheless remarkably influential in bringing what were then considered exotic plants, such as tomatoes, watermelon and cantaloupes, figs and almonds, to colonial gardens.
Jefferson was made Minister Plenipotentiary, or Ambassador to Paris in 1784. Along with Benjamin Franklin and for a a while John Adams, his job was to negotiate trade and foster an alliance with France. While there, he fell in love with all things French, most especially the finer arts of architecture, literature, theater and food.
I am sure he was both eager and excited about his new post. Jefferson had long been enamored with Europe and was more than ready for his own Grand Tour. As a wealthy and well-educated landowner, he had access and exposure to books about the Continent and readings from its most famous philosophers. Anyway, his wife had recently died, he as a in a state of total despair and he desperately needed a change of scenery.
I have an active imagination: I can just see Jefferson, a studious, analytical, slightly OCD type, hunched over his desk by candlelight, making endless lists of where he would go and what he would see. Think about this: America was 8 years old, on tenuous footing both domestically and internationally. His political genius was desperately needed and I am sure he spent countless hours strategizing the future of his beloved country. But in between those intellectual, philosophical and downright practical concerns, Jefferson was sitting there thinking about what wines he wanted to try, which regions produced the best olive oils, what kinds of truffles he might find and just which cities he would visit on his first expedition away from Paris. Given there was no electricity to light his home, I often wonder how Jefferson’s brain managed to produce such incredible genius during the daylight hours. I suppose it helped that he wasn’t distracted by reality TV and Wii-U.
Before he left for Paris, he made a deal with his slave James Hemings: if Hemings would join him on the trip, Jefferson would have him train with the best Parisian chef’s. Upon their return to the United States, Hemings would train a new cook at Monticello and then be granted his freedom. This is the stated theme for Craughwell’s well researched book.
Croughwell obviously spent a lot of time pouring over every major publication on Jefferson. At times, the book seems a regurgitation of some of the better tomes (Ellis, Isaacson, McCullough, Cosway) about one of my favorite founding fathers. It is a quick and interesting read, so I don’t want to be too critical. You should definitely check this book from the library.
But for me, this book is missing the back-story. It’s not about James Hemings at all. He was a slave. On a large plantation. In Virginia. Jefferson” slave- Jefferson’s plantation- Jefferson’s Virginia. What did that really mean in 1784? what did that mean in terms of Jefferson’s ownership of not only James, but his entire family. Reportedly very light skinned and descended from Jefferson’s father-in-law, the Hemings were well placed in the household, but they were still property. What was that like? What was it like in terms of the foods he personally ate, versus the foods he made for the Jefferson’s? Did his mother and grandmother teach him how to incorporate African culinary traditions onto an American table?
Hemings didn’t speak French when he arrived in Paris. How did he maneuver the city? The French were opposed to slavery: did Hemings experience a rapturous feeling of sudden freedom, or was this cultural difference frightening or bewildering to a mind so thoroughly molded by the culture of slavery?
French kitchens are rigorously, even militarily regimented. What did he encounter on that first day in the kitchen– the lowest man in the kitchen hierarchy? How did the French cooks treat him? What did he love most about the new kitchens and new ingredients? Did he respect the French method? What did he think of French food? Did he love it, or was he merely putting up to move out?
Sadly, the truth of these imaginings are lost to history. Hemings left Jefferson’s employ as a free man in 1796, seven years after his return to Virginia. Although he returned to work for Jefferson for a brief stint in New York and over one brief summer, he permanently left Monticello for work in Baltimore, was passed over as head chef at the White House during Jefferson’s Presidential tenure and committed suicide at the young age of thirty-six. Precious few of his recipes remain. Croughwell includes photocopies of some recipes attributed to James in his book. Here is his recipe for Snow Eggs- found in a recipe book written by Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia.
Take 10 eggs, separate the yolks from the whites and beat the whites as you do for the savoy cake, till you can turn the vessel bottom upward without their leaving it; when they are well beaten, put in 2 spoonfuls of powdered sugar and a little orange flower water or rose water if you prefer it. Put a pint of milk in a saucepan with 6 oz sugar and orange flower or rose water; when your milk boils, take the whites, spoonful by spoonful and do them in the boiling milk; when sufficiently poached, take them out and lay them on a sieve. Take out a part of the milk, according to the thickness you wish to give the custard. Beat up the yolks and stir them in the remainder; as soon as it thickens, take the mixture from the fire; strain it through a sieve; dish up your whites and pour the custard over them.
A little wine stirred in is a great improvement.
— James, cook at Monticello
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