Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America
Thomas J. Craughwell
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This culinary biography recounts the 1784 deal that Thomas Jefferson struck with his slaves, James Hemings. The founding father was traveling to Paris and wanted to bring James along “for a particular purpose”— to master the art of French cooking. In exchange for James’s cooperation, Jefferson would grant his freedom.
Thus began one of the strangest partnerships in United States history. As Hemings apprenticed under master French chefs, Jefferson studied the cultivation of French crops (especially grapes for winemaking) so the might be replicated in American agriculture. The two men returned home with such marvels as pasta, French fries, Champagne, macaroni and cheese, crème brûlée, and a host of other treats. This narrative history tells the story of their remarkable adventure—and even includes a few of their favorite recipes!
her relatives and the home she had come to know. Jefferson tried to convince her by promising “as many dolls and playthings as you want for yourself, or to send to your cousins.” But Polly wasn’t buying it. “I am very sorry you have sent for me,” she wrote to her father. “I don’t want to go to France. I had rather stay with Aunt Eppes.” To yet another letter from Jefferson urging her to come to Paris, Polly replied, “I cannot go to France and hope that you and sister Patsy are well.” Faced with
the afternoon of May 7, 1784, not long after dinner had been served at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson sat down to write a brief note to his friend and protégé William Short. “Congress have to day,” he wrote, “added me to the commission for negotiating treaties of commerce with the European powers.” News had just arrived from Paris that one of the commissioners, John Jay, was sailing back to America, leaving the team one member short. Jefferson would fill the void. He had not yet booked passage or
work out of a large and diverse staff. In other words, his administrative skills had to be on a par with his culinary skills. Elaborate meals prepared entirely by men was a phenomenon unknown in America or England, where people of all classes ate the same thing—meat, some fish, cheese, white bread, a few vegetables, and lots of sweet desserts. Furthermore, these meals were prepared by both male and female cooks working side by side.25 In colonial America, it was women—not men—who ran the
Washington, Franklin, Lafayette, and John Paul Jones, which Jefferson had commissioned from the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon; the sculptures would adorn the tea room at Monticello.33 He filled eighty-six crates with kitchen utensils and equipment, including a pasta-making machine from Italy. He also packed up wines, cheeses, olive oil, and Maille mustard—his favorite.34 He crated seedlings of fruit trees and ornamental trees, including four apricots, four Cresanne pears, one white fig,
stew, and apple dumplings; such dishes were known in Jefferson’s day as “plantation fare” and surely formed part of the meals served at Monticello. His decision to have James trained as a French chef tells us that Jefferson, who was interested in just about everything, was also curious to learn more about the celebrated cuisine of France. Exactly when he became interested in French cooking is a mystery—he had no opportunities to sample refined Continental cooking while in the United States.