French Cuisine in a Virginia Kitchen

In the summer of 2004 visitors to Monticello could for the first time walk into a kitchen that closely resembles what Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern knew almost two centuries ago. Using Monticello inventories and Jefferson's packing lists, Curatorial Department staff collected the kind of copper cookware these enslaved women used to prepare the sophisticated French-influenced meals praised by Jefferson's guests. Generous support from the Florence Gould Foundation made possible the purchase of the French equipment, as well as the restoration of the fireplace, bake oven, and some unusual built-in fittings considered essential to French cuisine.

From the time he took his domestic servant James Hemings to Paris in 1784 to learn French cookery, Jefferson made sure that his enslaved cooks were trained to prepare meals in the French manner. Hemings passed his skills on to his brother Peter, while Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern received years of training from a French chef in the President's House at Washington. On Jefferson's retirement in 1809, they returned to Monticello to find a new kitchen that replaced the old one in the cellar of the South Pavilion. The site of meal preparation—at the intersection of the south wing of dependencies and the all-weather passageway underneath the house—was now a much larger space. And, instead of preparing all the food at an intensely-hot open hearth, Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern monitored soups and sauces simmering in copper pans on a built-in stew stove like the one they had used in the President's House. Common in Europe but relatively rare in the United States, this precursor of the kitchen range had charcoal fires in grated cast-iron openings and could be regulated more precisely than a roaring fireplace.

The recreated kitchen includes an eight-hole stew stove as well as a set kettle, another built-in convenience which provided constant hot water. At the hearth is a clockwork spit-jack for roasting meats. And arrayed on the dresser are gleaming copper saucepans and fish kettles, representing the over sixty pieces of copper cookware that Jefferson had shipped back from France in 1790. Now it is easier to imagine the kitchen bustling with preparations for the principal meal of the day. When the main course was boeuf à la mode, which the enslaved cooks had learned to make in Washington, they laid bacon and a round of beef in a deep saucepan along with a proper allowance of white wine and brandy. Their youthful assistants Israel Gillette and Robert Colbert chopped carrots and onions and ground nutmeg and allspice to add to the dish, which simmered on the stew stove for three hours. In order to time the completion of this and many other dishes for the four o'clock dinner, Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern kept their eyes on a tall case clock. A careful reproduction of this timepiece stands ticking in the corner.

Cooking for the President

Three enslaved women from Monticello spent part of their lives in the executive mansion in Washington. When President Jefferson hired a French chef, Honoré Julien, in 1801, he decided to have some of his slaves trained in French cookery. The first to make the 120-mile journey to the nation’s capital—in the fall of 1801—was fourteen-year-old Ursula Hughes, daughter of Bagwell and Minerva Granger and wife of Wormley Hughes. In March 1802 she bore a child, probably the first born in the White House, and returned to Monticello a few months later.

Edith Fossett arrived in Washington in the fall of 1802 at the age of fifteen and worked in the presidential kitchen until the end of Jefferson’s presidency—more than six years of separation from her husband, Monticello blacksmith Joseph Fossett. Edith bore two children in the White House, one of whom died in infancy. Late in 1806 she was joined by Fanny Hern, brought from Monticello by her husband. Wagoner David Hern knew the road to Washington well, making the journey with his mule cart twice a year to carry plants and supplies back and forth. Fanny, too, bore and lost a child while she lived in the White House.

Jefferson paid these enslaved apprentice cooks no wages, but gave them a gratuity of two dollars a month. With one exception, the rest of the domestic staff were free; they included two Frenchmen, several Irish servants, and two other African Americans. In the spring of 1809 Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern returned to Monticello, where they prepared meals throughout the years of Jefferson’s retirement. Visitors to the mountaintop noted that the dinners were abundant, “choice,” and “in good taste.”

 

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