Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance.
Let's just say Thomas Jefferson, statesman, Founding Father and the third United States president, loved to party. He was quite the gourmand and wine connoisseur of his time, with a taste for fine French cuisine that he shared with guests at legendary dinners, both in his Monticello home and at the President's House (before it was dubbed the White House).
As a slaveholder, he inevitably drew on his staff to grow, cook and serve the fare he cherished. Those servants were, obviously, African Americans, and this book documents their role in the cuisine associated with Jefferson. (He himself is said to have rarely set foot in the kitchen, and as a widower had his daughters to help host and direct the household.)
The beautifully presented, colorful work includes a highly informative chapter on "African Americans in Monticello's Food Culture," written by Dianne Swann-Wright, curator of the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and former director of African American programs at Monticello. Ample references to the contributions of the African Americans at Monticello are also found throughout the book.
Jefferson's own habit of keeping elaborate records of his food purchases, gardening experiments, menus and human property, as well as other family papers, public documents, letters of guests and cookbooks of the era, allow a close look at this rich culinary legacy.
Swann-Wright names specific individuals who tended the gardens and turned out masterpieces in the kitchens, based on account books kept by Jefferson and his relatives.
"These African Americans--some of whom remain invisible to us today because of our lack of knowledge about their lives--created a lasting, dual culinary legacy," she writes. "Whether the fine cuisine served at Monticello, or the enslaved community's rich food traditions, cultivated amid adversity."
The Virginia aristocrat believed in training his aides well. European horticulturists were brought in to tutor men named Squire, Great George, Wormley Hughes and John, particularly in the cultivation of plants that Jefferson delighted in importing to establish in the colonies. In their spare time, the black gardeners were permitted to grow their own crops, and many of them are recorded as selling or bartering produce, game and fish to the Jeffersons for use at the table.
"Squire, for example ... represented the most sophisticated garden," Swarm-Wright quotes another historian saying. "He sold thirteen different commodities, including cymlins (a patty-pan shaped squash), potatoes, lettuce, beets, watermelons, apples and muskmelons."
The author provides insight on the rations given to the servants at Jefferson's instruction: "to each grown negro a pint [of salt] a month for their snaps, cymlins and other uses." Each adult also got a half-pound of pork or beef per week, some fish and other staples as recorded in Jefferson's books. Some reproductions of the ledgers are shown.
An Education in Paris
The most familiar name among the cooks was James Hemings, whom Jefferson took to Paris at the age of 19 "for the particular purpose of learning French cookery," while his owner served as minister to France. James soon took over Jefferson's kitchen at his home on the Champs Elysees and later at Philadelphia and Monticello. In exchange for the freedom he requested, he was obligated to train a replacement chef, passing on his knowledge to his brother Peter Hemings, who became head cook at Monticello. (Their sister, Sally Hemings, a seamstress and ladie's maid to Jefferson's daughters at Monticello, not a cook, is barely mentioned in the book.)
Jefferson regularly entertained in Paris and dined weekly at the court of Louis XVI. He also shipped home crates of French delicacies, ranging from anchovies to macaroni, and 680 bottles of French wine. While abroad, he also sent home for American products: apples, corn and Virginia hams to introduce to the French.
Another black cook, Edith Hern Fossett served in the kitchen at Monticello and at the President's House when Jefferson was in residence there. She, in turn, taught her children to cook. Her sons, Peter and William Fossett, went on to become leading caterers in Cincinnati, Ohio. William later became a hotel chef in Niagara Falls, New York. (Peter's picture is among the many fine illustrations included in the book.) Fanny Gillette Hem, Edith's sister-in-law, also trained at the President' House and cooked at Monticello, as did a servant named Ursula Hughes.
The author also provides fascinating details about the service of food under the direction of the butler of Monticello, Malcolm Hemings (and a succession of Hemings kin over several decades), and in the Washington residence under a French maitre d'hotel.
As president from 1801 to 1809, Jefferson systematically wined and dined every member of Congress, fitting them in with dinners at least three times a week in the President's House. At the table, guests recorded that the president did much of the serving himself with the aid of inventions that kept the servants largely unseen. Revolving service doors that allowed food to be passed to the dining room, as well as "dumbwaiters," small, tiered tables that held plates, minimized the need for human labor.
When he retired to Monticello in 1809, visitors still flocked to the home near Charlottsville, Virginia, where they dined on the fine fare of his black cooks.
Recipes for the Ages
The text consists of 10 essays, each on a specific aspect of the Jeffersonian culinary tradition, including reflections on the role of women at the estate, the French influence on the kitchens, the wine collection and a discussion of the president's love of vegetables.
Fowler, a culinary historian in Savannah, Georgia, who has edited five other cookbooks and written two, includes copious footnotes and references in this meticulously documented work. This is an excellent contribution to our knowledge of food history, as well as African American history.
Seventy-five recipes (from the famed hams to the delicate desserts) drawn from the family's papers but adapted by Fowler for modern cooking complete the experience and open our eyes to the variety and abundance offered at Jefferson's table. Some are attributed specifically to one black cook or another, but the record is sketchy regarding each one's specialties, save for an occasional letter among family members asking for a recipe or two.
Jefferson, for instance, once wrote from Washington: "Pray enable yourself to direct us here how to make muffins in Peter's method. My cook here cannot succeed at all in them, and they are a great luxury to me."
Angela P. Dodson is executive editor of Black Issues Book Review.