Thomas Jefferson: A Founding Foodie

Thomas Jefferson was two centuries ahead of his time in the way he ate and entertained. Today’s farm-to-table movement – eating local food in season – is profoundly Jeffersonian. He made an elaborate chart of the 34 vegetables he liked best, when they were at their peak in local markets, and who was the best grower for each (picture above).

Not only did Mr. Jefferson bring seeds home from his travels to cultivate at Monticello, but people from all over the world would send him seeds for his experimental garden. There they grew 250 varieties of greens that included some so exotic that on occasion dinner guests told of being worried they might be poisonous. He had an orchard with 100 trees where he grew apples and peaches, and he grew 25 varieties of tomatoes, at a time when tomatoes were broadly thought of as simply a poisonous nightshade. But Jefferson had been to Italy, so he knew otherwise.

At Monticello radishes and lettuce were replanted every two weeks to insure a continuous crop. He was particularly fond of cucumbers.

But his favorite vegetable was the simple garden pea. He held a famous contest with his neighbors in Virginia each year to see who could grow the first peas of the season in any abundance – the winner would host a feast in celebration. Jefferson only won once.

During the years of his presidency, sometimes wagon loads of food were transported from Monticello for Jefferson’s White House entertaining. He became well known for his elaborate and thoughtfully planned meals that featured a profusion of food, very much in keeping with Southern hospitality – ham, turkey, chicken, lamb, with a variety of breads and his fresh Monticello vegetables. Desserts were often elaborate and placed in the center of the table for guests to take their pick from – meringues, macaroons, and bell fritters. Jefferson was also well known for his love of wine. For important dinners there would be up to seven wines served during a meal – sometimes something imported from France that was completely novel for his guests.

“My measure is a perfectly sober 3 or 4 glasses at dinner and not a drop at any other time. But of those 3 or 4 glasses, I am very fond.” — Thomas Jefferson (note that to Jefferson a glass was smaller than ours)

Jefferson was careful to eat in moderation himself and preferred vegetables served with small amounts of meat. But if invited to dine at Monticello or at the White House as a guest, the meal was elaborate and carefully planned. It was typical at Monticello to find small delicate desserts on the table for the enjoyment of his guests following dinner. He took his duties as host very seriously and believed in the power of sharing a good meal to change hearts.

In case you need to host a dinner with high stakes for the future of the world, the historic “Dinner Table Compromise” – the Jeffersonian Dinner between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison that was credited to have saved the union, Jefferson served his guests:

Capon stuffed with Virginia ham and chestnut puree, artichoke bottoms and truffles with a bit of cream, white wine and chicken stock added. It was served with a calvados sauce made with the great apple brandy of Normandy.

Read more about the food you might find around Jefferson’s dinner table here.

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