August 13, 2015

Jeffersonian Cuisine


“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” – Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825

Food is inextricably linked to identity. When studying the culture of a civilization, one of the greatest insights into that culture is through its appetite. What you eat, when you eat, even how you eat are all factors that define you.

Exploring the history of cuisine at Monticello is a lesson in identity– a meal prepared here in Thomas Jefferson’s time would have been a pastiche of cultures and influences – French cuisine amalgamated with Virginian gastronomy, in turn molded by the African American slaves who produced and prepared these meals.

Thomas Jefferson understood, perhaps more than most, the social value of good food. Though he occasionally sought solitude at Poplar Forest, Jefferson often entertained guests at Monticello, as evidenced by the twenty-eight black and gold Windsor chairs found in his entrance hall. According to Peter Fossett, the son of one of Monticello’s cooks, life at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home was a “merry go round of hospitalities.” Meals eaten in respectable company were of paramount importance at Monticello, and the more guests at the table, the more plentiful the variety of dishes. In the style of service à la française, all dishes were presented simultaneously, the more significant dishes placed centrally, with smaller courses flanking. Meals at Monticello must have been a sight to see, guests seated “pell-mell,” a colorful assortment of victuals presented in concert.

As a member of the Virginian upper-class, Thomas Jefferson would have been introduced to French cuisine at a young age, and likely dined on French thoroughfare at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg. His tenure in Europe further broadened his taste in cuisine, and sparked his lifelong interest in wine (upon his return to the Americas he brought with him 680 bottles!). Inventories of the cellars at Monticello are dominated by imported European delicacies such as olive oil, Parmesan cheese, capers, and, of course, wine. Jefferson’s love of French cuisine was such that his slave, James Hemings, traveled with him to France, to study under Monsieur Combeaux, a French caterer. Another slave, Edith Fossett, trained under Presidential chef Honoré Julien and butler Etienne Lemaire, becoming a skilled chef. Her skill was such that her sons Peter and William became a prominent caterers in Cincinnati, using their wealth to build a church and orphanage.

French Gastronomer Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin and Peter Fosset
From left: French Gastronomer Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin; Peter Fossett, son of chef Edith Fossett

One of the best insights into Jefferson’s culinary habits is through his Garden Book, where over the course of fifty-seven years, he meticulously recorded the planting of hundreds of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Though he was not a vegetarian, his diet was largely plant-based. He planted Brown Dutch and Iceberg lettuce, spinach, endive, French sorrel, cress, twenty-seven varieties of kidney bean, sea kale, artichokes, asparagus, cucumbers, eggplant, Pani corn, and much, much more. His accounts of experimental planting mention over three hundred varieties of vegetables planted in his thousand foot garden. Even with such a lush garden, records exist of vegetables like cymlins purchased by members of Jefferson’s family from slaves, and of Jefferson’s butler, Etienne Lemaire, procuring produce in the markets of Washington.

monticello kitchen
Monticello Kitchen photo credit:

His love of wine drove him to start two vineyards, both of which probably failed to yield a bottle of wine. Jefferson was also fond of fish and had two ponds built at Monticello in 1812. Despite heavy rains in 1814 washing away many of the fish from both ponds, he was not discouraged. A May 1819 entry in his Garden Book mentions three ponds – one for carp, chub, and eels.

Jefferson had an unusual inquisitiveness, and proclivity for experimentation in all aspects of his life. Food was no exception.

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Stay tuned for more recipes from Monticello to follow!


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