Thomas Jefferson's Favorite Vegetables

Back to Twinleaf Journal Online »

In 1819 Thomas Jefferson wrote, "I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that ... as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet." His 1,000-foot-long kitchen garden terrace was an experimental laboratory where he cultivated seventy different species and 250 varieties of vegetables. Although he loved fine fancy fruit, the ornamental "pet trees" that graced his mountaintop home, and a variety of flowers, the vegetable garden, because of its sublime posture overlooking the rolling Piedmont Virginia countryside and its dramatic scale and scope, was Jefferson's chief horticultural achievement at Monticello. Here, Jefferson himself sowed peas, cabbages, and okra and recorded when the lettuce "came to table" or how the broad beans were "killed by bug" in his Garden "Kalendar."

What were Thomas Jefferson's favorite vegetables? Although his unabashed enthusiasm for many garden plants was readily expressed by sweeping pronouncements about how the Marseilles fig was "incomparably the finest fig I've ever seen," or that the flowering acacia was "the most delicious flowering shrub in the world," only a few vegetables received such accolades. Historian Merrill Peterson has noted that Jefferson "did not often bother to qualify felicitous generalizations," and one learns to temper Jefferson's statements about the "the best of this" or "the most beautiful of that" with guarded scepticism.

The frequency with which Jefferson planted a certain variety or species is perhaps a more objective criteria for tabulating his favorite garden plants. Also, his notes on gardening extended from1767 until 1824, fifty-seven years, and the enduring qualities of many vegetables can be measured by their appearance in the more mature gardens: following his retirement from the Presidency to Monticello in 1809, and at Poplar Forest, his summer retreat home near Lynchburg, Virginia, built in 1814. The plants grown at Poplar Forest were usually the species that thrived at Monticello.

Jefferson supplemented his vegetable diet by purchases from Monticello slaves, who cultivated gardens out in the 5,000-acre plantation and maintained an alternative economy based on the production and sale of foodstuffs. When Jefferson was President, between 1801 and 1809, his butler, Etienne Lemaire, purchased produce in the markets of Washington. Tabulating these purchases, as well as surveying the contents of Jefferson family recipes, provides another key to the vegetable world of "the sage of Monticello."

The English or Garden pea is usually described as Jefferson's favorite vegetable because of the frequency of plantings in the Monticello kitchen garden, the amount of garden space devoted to it (three entire "squares"), and the character-revealing playfulness of his much-discussed pea contests: according to family accounts, every spring Jefferson competed with local gentleman gardeners to bring the first pea to the table; the winner then hosting a community dinner that included a feast on the winning dish of peas. Among the nineteen pea varieties Jefferson documented sowing were Early Frame, which was planted annually from 1809 until 1824; Hotspur, named for its quick, frantic growth; Marrowfat, a starchier and later variety; and Blue Prussian, which Jefferson obtained from Bernard McMahon. Twinleaf offers Prince Albert, indistinguishable from Early Frame and introduced into America in the 1840s.

In 1824 Mary Randolph, a first cousin of Jefferson's from Richmond, Virginia, published The Virginia Housewife, considered by food historians the "most influential" cookbook of the 19th century. Many of the book's recipes are also found among the surviving papers of Jefferson's daughter, Martha, and his granddaughters, suggesting an exchange of culinary ideas between the families. Mary Randolph included a recipe for pea soup that is interesting because it is made from fresh rather than dried peas. Jefferson's butler, Lemaire, however, only recorded purchasing peas for the President's House six times in 1806 for the elaborate state dinners Jefferson hosted. (Parsley, by comparison, was purchased on 79 different occasions). There is no record Jefferson or his family members purchased peas from slaves at Monticello. Perhaps Jefferson enjoyed growing peas more than he liked to eat them.

Lettuce was the most common vegetable purchased in the Washington markets for Presidential dinners; Lemaire purchased it over ninety times in 1806. Lettuce was planted an average of five or six times annually in the Monticello garden between 1809 and 1824. Brown Dutch was the variety planted most frequently, often in fall for winter harvests. This is a handsome, loose-headed lettuce, the leaves ruffled and tinged reddish-brown, worthy of a place in any gourmet kitchen today. "Ice" lettuce, presumably a solid-heading Iceberg type, and Tennis-ball, a parent of modern Boston lettuces which, according to Jefferson, "does not require so much care and attention," were also prominent varieties. Brown Dutch and Tennis-ball are part of the Monticello collection today.

Monticello salads probably included a mixed bouquet of greens, including spinach and endive for winter use, orach, corn salad or mache, pepper grass, French sorrel, cress, and "sprouts." According to Mary Randolph, greens were gathered early in the morning, laid in cold water, sometimes including ice, then only removed hours later at dinner. Randolph's salad dressing included oil, common and tarragon vinegar, hard-boiled egg yolks, mustard, sugar, and salt. Salads were garnished with sliced egg whites and scallions, "they being the most delicate of the onion tribe."

Salad oil was a perennial obsession for Jefferson. He referred to the olive as "the richest gift of heaven," and "the most interesting plant in existence." When he found domestic olive oil imperfect and imported olive oil too expensive, Jefferson turned to the possibilities of oil extracted from sesame seed or benne (Sesamum orientale). He acclaimed the species, "among the most valuable acquisitions our country has ever made," and attributed its American introduction to African-American slaves. Jefferson sowed the seed annually from 1809 until 1824, and purchased or concocted three different sesame oil presses. He was probably disappointed by the low yield of seed to oil and by the problems of extracting chaff and leaves during the pressing.

Jefferson was a pioneer grower of "tomatas." Beginning in 1809, he planted this grudgingly accepted vegetable yearly, usually in square X near the midpoint of the garden. Jefferson's daughter, Martha, and daughters, Virginia and Septimia, left numerous recipes that involved tomatoes, including gumbo soups, cayenne-spiced tomato soup, green tomato pickles, tomato preserves, and tomato omelettes. Tomatoes were purchased in 1806 for Presidential dinners. Randolph's The Virginia Housewife has seventeen recipes for tomatoes, including gazpacho, gumbo, and catsup. In an 1824 speech before the Albemarle Agricultural Society, Jefferson's son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph discussed the transformation of Virginia farming due to the introduction of new crops. He mentioned how tomatoes were virtually unknown ten years earlier, but by 1824 everyone was eating them because they believed they Akept one's blood pure in the heat of summer."

Jefferson grew a variety described as "Spanish tomato (very much larger than the common kinds."), probably typical of the heavily-loved, ribbed, and flattened tomatoes generally grown in the early 19th century. Today, our collection includes Costoluto Genovese, an Italian variety with a shape that resembles a patty-pan squash, and Purple Calabash, which has a deep, dark, almost black skin, and scores consistently high during public tomato-tasting events at Monticello.

Jefferson documented planting 27 varieties of kidney bean, Phaseolus vulgaris. Unfortunately, bean varieties at Monticello were usually identified by their geographical source ("dwarf beans of Holland"), or basic physical description ("long haricots"), making their retrieval today difficult. Mary Randolph discussed "French" or snap beans, which should be picked young and prepared with the strings plucked, not "Frenched" by slicing them longitudinally. "Those who are nice," she wrote, "do not use them at such a growth as to require splitting."

The Scarlet Runner (Phaseolus coccineus), and its flowering variants, was the species Jefferson had in mind when in 1812 he recorded planting "Arbor beans white, crimson, scarlet, purple ... on the long walk of the garden." Though still common in northern European kitchen gardens, most Americans today grow Scarlet Runner's as ornamentals. Another ornamental bean species, the Caracalla, or Snail Flower, was described by Jefferson as "the most beautiful bean in the world." Although he acknowledged difficulties in growing this tender species in Virginia, we are successful today by lifting the roots in late autumn and treating them like dahlia tubers. The Caracalla bean, today, is the most popular plant in the Twinleaf catalogue.

Cabbage was the second most commonly purchased vegetable bought by the Jefferson family from Monticello slaves, and it was the second most purchased vegetable (51 purchases in 1806) in the Washington markets. Jefferson recorded planting eighteen varieties at Monticello in thirty different locations. Mary Randolph recommended boiling cabbage: "With careful management, they will look as beautiful when dressed as they did when growing." Early York was the most frequently planted cabbage variety B its early-season heading and small, conical head suggest qualities found in the still-popular Early Jersey Wakefield. Ox Heart, a larger, later, conical-shaped cabbage documented in the Garden Book was introduced into the Monticello gardens in 1999.

Like many savvy gardeners, Jefferson seemed to prefer perennial flowers and vegetables over annuals. An 1815 entry in the Garden Book includes a chart detailing the harvest dates for perennials like asparagus, artichokes, and sea kale. Surprisingly, cold-tender artichokes were harvested thirteen of twenty-two years, a higher percentage than our success rate today. In 1815 Jefferson proudly defined the mildness of a Virginia winter when he wrote, "the artichoke stands the winter without protection." Artichokes were popular among gentlemen gardeners around 1800. John Randolph, Williamsburg author of "A Treatise on Gardening," circa 1780, provided extensive directions for protecting the plants with straw during winter. Artichokes were prepared similarly to their presentation today: the flower head boiled, the leafy bracts trimmed and served with melted butter.

Another Monticello garden square was reserved for asparagus, one of the few vegetables in which Jefferson documented performing some sort of cultural technique: asparagus beds were "littered" (mulched) with tobacco leaves and "dressed" (fertilized) with manure. Asparagus is a harbinger of spring, and Jefferson noted its arrival at the table 22 times, the average date being April 8. Rather than purchase plants, Jefferson sowed asparagus seed, patiently awaiting a harvestable crop in four years. Mary Randolph's directions for preparing asparagus were more elaborate than for any other vegetable: stalks were meticulously scraped, bundled carefully in lots of 25, and immersed in boiling water. The cooking was delicately timed so "their true flavour and colour" is preserved; "a minute or two more boiling destroys both." Asparagus was served on buttered toast.

Sea kale (Crambe maritima), a perennial cabbage native to the coast of Great Britain, was another yearly favorite at Monticello. Spring shoots are blanched with sea kale pots to moderate their inherent Brassica bitterness, and harvested when six to ten inches long in April. The stalks were then bundled and prepared like asparagus. Jefferson was probably inspired to grow sea kale after reading Bernard McMahon's The American Gardener's Calendar, 1806, sometimes called his "Bible" of horticulture. McMahon's directions for sowing sea kale seed were closely followed by Jefferson in his 1819 "Kalendar": "Oct. 19. Planted Seakale 6. Rows 100. F. long, 16 I. apart, & the seeds 16. I. dist. In [the] row making 6. Rows of 75. Holes each ' 600. Holes or plants. 6 seeds in each hole." Jefferson also ordered sea kale pots from a Richmond potter in 1823.

Although I've singled out numerous vegetable species as Jefferson's favorites, it would be folly to dismiss others of the vegetable tribe. Cucumbers were sowed yearly at Monticello, sometimes in hogsheads, and they were the most commonly purchased vegetable from the Monticello slave community. The Monticello Chartreuse, according to a surviving family recipe, consisted of "all roots . . .cut in slices and arranged in a fanciful way, alternating carrots and white vegetables, in a straight sided vessel. It was turned out in a beautiful form and made a very pretty dish for a ceremonious dinner." Jefferson obtained the Texas Bird Pepper in 1812 and was instrumental in its distribution throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, where regional recipes emerged for hot spicy sauces, vinegars, pickles, and cake-like pepper pots. Nasturtiums - the leaves harvested for greens, the flowers picked for salads, the seeds used as substitute capers - were planted annually from 1812 to 1824. French tarragon is generally recognized as his favorite culinary herb, and tarragon vinegar was used to dress salads at Monticello. Was there a vegetable in the civilized western world that Thomas Jefferson did not embrace?

Peter J. Hatch, Director
Monticello Gardens and Grounds
January 2000

[Note: "The 1806 Market Accounts of Etienne Lemaire," translated by Amy Rider for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (August 19, 1996), was the source for information about produce purchased for Jefferson's Presidential dinners.]

Back to Twinleaf Journal Online »

Discussion

says

One of the things I love about working at Monticello is being able to learn from the expertise of my colleagues. Before I began working here 10 years ago, I knew nothing about gardens or garden history. Many projects I have been involved with have required me to delve into this fascinating chunk of Jefferson scholarship. I think the Twinleaf Journal in all its richness and diversity is amazing. Today I was reading Peter Hatch's essay about Jefferson's favorite vegetables because I am writing a children's book for the Foundation and want the section about the vegetable garden to be as accurate as possible. Fortunately I have great resources!

Add comment

Login to post comments