When I was in Joy Fulton’s literature class at Woodward Academy we chewed up, digested, and spit out many or the world’s best known bits of prose. One that I remember quite vividly was The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. In my young romantic mind I could see myself with the love of my life on a beautiful blanket in a forest setting while we broke bread, drank wine, had a fantastic conversation, and gazed longingly in each other’s eyes.
Of course, even back then Dear Hubby and I spent many of our dates in some of Atlanta’s finer restaurants while our friends were satisfied with McDonalds. The love of my life and I knew the food was important, the wine was a wonderful addition, but it was “thou”---the person we were with and our conversation--- that made a memorable meal. However, this post really isn’t about my adventures through Atlanta’s main dining rooms…..I have a presidential purpose here.
I have wanted to write something about Thomas Jefferson for some time, but where do you start? What do you focus on? How do you not end up with a 500 page tome? To properly study Thomas Jefferson I think it would be necessary to spend an entire semester----nine weeks at the very least---to look at all the different faces of a most interesting man. He was among other things a horticulturalist, an architect, an archaeologist, a paleontologist, author, inventor, and founder of the University of Virginia.
Another great passion of Jefferson’s was food, wine, and the presentation and consumption of both. John Adams put Jefferson’s passion in perspective when he said, “I dined a large company once or twice a week. Jefferson dined a dozen every day. I held levees once a week. Jefferson’s whole eight years was a levee.”
Jefferson’s love of wine, food, and conversation began early on while he was a student at William and Mary. While Jefferson took his studies very seriously he often attended parties given by Virginia’s royal governor, Francis Fauquier, and the wine flowed.
Jefferson experimented with growing his own grapes at Monticello and at the Hotel de Langeac, his home while in France that stood along the Champs-Elysees. He had high hopes for the American grade and predicted American wines would one day rival those of the French.
The first wine cellar built at the White House was installed by Thomas Jefferson who referred to wine as “a necessary for life.” The cellar was installed [under] an outbuilding since there was no vault cool enough in the main building. Some resources state that during his administration approximately $10,000 was spent on the wine. Jefferson personally ordered and paid for the finest wines from abroad, and noted the rate of their consumption in his own account books.
Jefferson always served a meal for visitors in his home, but they were downright lavish affairs at the White House. Even so, White House protocol was relaxed and state dinners were turned into more casual entertaining social events. Jefferson’s Monticello overseer, Edmond Bacon has been known to say, “He had a very long dining-room, and his table was chock-full every one of the sixteen days I was there. There were congressmen, foreigners, and all sorts of people to dine with him. He dined at four o’clock, and they generally sat and talked until night.”
There are many resources to head towards when researching Jefferson’s tablefare since many notable people dined with him and wrote about it. While searching through the archives of American Heritage magazine I located an interesting article regarding the gourmet Jefferson written in 1964 by Jean Hanvey Hazelton.
The article refers to the redlabelled Day Book where a record of every financial transaction dealing with Jefferson’s household was fastidiously recorded for posterity by Entienne Lemaire, Jefferson’s major-domo. Lemaire joined Jefferson’s staff during his first administration. In the book he records every pound of meat purchased, every saddle of venison, and every box of currants…One hundred and fourteen pages are filled for the period 1806-1809. His records also include transportation charges for wine and water; coal, wood, and “cyder” (one of Jefferson’s favorite beverages); incidental expenses of the servants; and other disbursements which the [major-domo] of an important house naturally undertook.
From the Day Book we learn that Jefferson served macaroni, vermicelli, anchovies, olive oil, vanilla, citron, Parmesan Cheese, European nuts, ice cream, and figs to his guests. From the American Heritage article we also learn that the Day Book contains other expenditures that give an interesting picture of Jefferson’s White House.
Fanny Bowles was a slave from Monticello. Jefferson had brought her to the White House to help with the cooking. While at the White House she received wages of two dollars per month. Fanny had a baby that was born frail and contracted the whooping cough. Jefferson himself took time from his official duties to write a note to a lady in Washington requesting her “to send the receipt for a remedy,” which he had heard her say was effectual. Nevertheless the child died. Pathetic little funeral expenses for the slave child were duly recorded by Lamaire in his Day Book. A coffin, delivered together with a load of wood by a Mr. Lennox, cost $2.25; the grave digger’s charge was $1.35; the hearse---‘la voitur’---was hired for $2.75 for the cold, sad trip to the burying ground.
There are many more interesting tidbits in the American Heritage article. I encourage you to read the entire thing here.