Appetite for Books
Dining at Monticello

Edited by Damon Lee Fowler
Thomas Jefferson Foundation/
University of North Carolina Press
2005, 202 pages
$35.00, cloth


How amazing to see a recipe for Biscuit de Savoye written in Thomas Jefferson's own hand. It connects contemporary cooks to the earliest American kitchens and among the most sophisticated. It conjures up notions of parties and daily life, family favorites and traditions, and like contemporary cooks, the avid collection of foreign recipes.

A collection of historians' essays and historical recipes, edited by Southern foodways expert, Damon Lee Fowler, this book mediates between the dry scholarship of Jefferson's public life and popularizers who credit him with introducing ice cream, macaroni, and French cuisine to American kitchens. 

In fact, Fowler points out that French cuisine has long been a standard for sophisticated dining and he debunks the myth that Jefferson was exclusively influenced by France. In his time there as minister plenipotentiary,  Jefferson wrote in his Paris journals, "they have no apple here to compare with our Newtown Pippin." You instantly want to taste this apple, and mid-Atlantic residents who scour farm markets can find this heirloom fruit.

While in Paris, Jefferson arranged for grafts of those apple trees to be shipped to him, along with corn, sweet potatoes, seeds for cantaloupe and watermelon, and Virginia ham, which he claimed to be "better than any to be had on this side of the Atlantic."

As the ten essays trace various topics, including the roles of women and slaves at Monticello, Jefferson's presidential entertaining, and his provisioning, they build a picture of Monticello as a complex economic enterprise, with particular attention paid to managing locked stores and inventories, and the production and purchase of food from local slaves and from France.

The book also conveys that Monticello was the intensely personal creation of a man Fowler describes as one with "a natural and active curiosity about everything."  Jefferson kept detailed garden journals, would enter the kitchen to wind the clock, and also developed three different (and not entirely successful) presses for sesame oil.

What really comes across is a sense of the new; that Jefferson saw his opportunity to create a new culture and through politics, by creating a university, and at his table, he strived to shape what that culture might be.

One of the most moving parts of the book, and of visiting Monticello, is Jefferson's vegetable garden. It is a formal arrangement of house and garden, planted on a south-facing terrace, with neat rows punctuated by a Neoclassical brick pavilion. Each row is a passion or an experiment, from the sweet peas that were planted and served so regularly and successfully they are assumed to be Jefferson's favorite, to the purple, white, and green varieties of broccoli.

Along with the garden, Jefferson gave specific attention to provisioning Monticello. His choices seem remarkably modern, and included Maille mustard, anchovies, olives and olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and tarragon vinegar. I can get these things in my neighborhood; Jefferson had them shipped from Bordeaux via Richmond.

Fowler has sorted and chosen the recipes as those most likely to be used at Monticello, some here transcribed from Jefferson's own hand, others by his daughters and other family sources. Where directions are spotty, Fowler fills in blanks with the help of The Virginia House-wife, one the earliest American cookbooks, written by another Jefferson family member, Mary Randolph.  

Fowler presents them here in sections on breads, soups, entrees, side dishes, and desserts, with the aim of "doable authenticity." He recommends ingredients and techniques that "closely align with eighteenth century practice," and have adapted them only as necessary. This is not a collection of  recipes you would make regular dinners from, though many of them, particularly soups and vegetables, will fit neatly into a contemporary menu. White Bean Soup is a French preparation, pureed with turnips, carrots and celery and served elegantly over butter croutons. Asparagus with Herb Vinaigrette has the same kind of elegant simplicity and is a dish that could appear in any contemporary food magazine.

Other dishes have the character of curiosities, like the recipe for yeasted Cornbread. Most cornbread recipes are leavened with baking powder, yet even without gluten, yeast mixed with cornbread into a batter with milk, butter and eggs makes a loose sponge that bakes into crunchy little cakes, chewy with a moist and delicate crumb.

There are a large number of dessert recipes, many custards and creams, as would be expected from a farm where there are plenty of milk and eggs. There are also recipes for gingerbread, macaroons, and small cakes and biscuits that could be on hand for the endless stream of visitors to Monticello.

Careful scholarship, bright writing, and glowing pictures combine with the recipes to create a fully rounded picture of Jefferson and Monticello that appeals to the mind and the senses.

© 2005 Claudia Kousoulas
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