At the time of the American Revolution (around 1775) the colonists were still eating a primarily British diet, consisting of meats, stews, puddings, breads, and sweets, with few vegetables. Beer, ale, and cider were frequent drinks. For the wealthiest, there was port wine and some liqueurs. After the death of Martha Jefferson in 1782, the newly formed Congress of the United States gave the widower Thomas the appointment of “plenipotentiary minister” (his basic diplomat) and sent him to France. Thus began the life of a great food enthusiast, wine connoisseur and hobbyist of kitchen utensils (we are talking about France, here, the country known for high kitchen). There he discovered good food, olive oils, tasty mustards, succulent cheeses and cakes, all unique foods that were practically unknown in the Colonies. And he was hooked.
On his second trip to France, Jefferson took a young slave with him for culinary training and returned home in 1789, bringing with him some of his favorite delicacies, along with 680 bottles of wine (wine expert extraordinary). He also brought home his latest gadget acquisitions, which included the first ice cream freezer, a cheese grater, and a pasta maker. Although he failed to start a major vineyard for domestic wine production on his Monticello estate, he was an avid gardener and horticulturist. Along with numerous local family vegetables, he successfully introduced and cultivated aubergine, okra, tomatoes, garlic, broad beans, peanuts, and hot and sweet peppers, all of which had previously been considered warm Mediterranean climate vegetables, virtually unknown to the British diet. . During his life, he experimented with organic gardening, developing new species and grafting fruit trees to produce tasty fruits. It literally changed the landscape of the gardens from colonial times onwards. Historians estimate that it was responsible for growing 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs and 170 varieties of fruits.
Dinners at TJ’s included hearty meat and poultry for his guests, but he preferred that most of his own food consisted of lots of fresh vegetables from his garden, with plenty of imported wines to go with everything. You definitely wanted to be on their guest list. After a typical dinner at the White House or Monticello, it can only be assumed that the gentlemen retired to the library to drink tobacco, brandy, and perhaps some loud burps, and then nodded. The ladies retired to the drawing room, where some of them reportedly let slip a few notches in their corsets. Not surprisingly, with the description one guest recorded in her diary as an “informal” dinner: a light rice and bean soup, roast beef, turkey, lamb, ham, veal chops, fried eggs, macaroni, a variety of fresh vegetables and a final plate of pudding, fruit, cheeses and ice cream with gravy. Accompanied by many imported wines, of course. As a renowned gourmand, Jefferson frequently advised other American luminaries and presidents on state dinner menus, and helped enlighten chefs with the proper preparation of his unique recipes.
We clearly have Jefferson to thank for introducing America to a medley of new dishes, with many ingredients fresh from their gardens: French fries, peanuts, Johnny cakes, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pudding, sesame seed oil, fried eggplant, and Those great American Staples, Ketchup, Pumpkin Pie, and Mac n Cheese. He also presented the ice cream to the astonished dinner guests. Combining Western European gardening with his unique Monticello cuisine, he enjoyed merging different cuisines and experimenting with new vegetables and fruits. Fortunately for future generations, TJ wrote recipes frequently during his European travels, as well as recording menus and collaborating with his chefs. Her daughters and grandchildren kept some of those precious recipes forever.
Thomas Jefferson was an extraordinary man. A visionary, gourmand, author, wine connoisseur, and southern gentleman. One can only fantasize about what their dinner guests experienced. If he were alive today, there is no question that he would have his own show on the Food Network.