Dining with Congress

On March 4, 1801, after walking to the Capitol to take the oath of office, the new President returned to his New Jersey Avenue lodgings for dinner. Thomas Jefferson took his usual place, "the lowest and coldest seat," at the bottom of a long table where he and thirty others dined on boarding-house fare. Later that spring, after he set up his own household on Pennsylvania Avenue, he began to offer meals of a very different sort to Washington residents. As one observer wrote, "Never before had such dinners been given in the President's House, nor such a variety of the finest and most costly wines." President Jefferson's entertainments - for legislators, administrators, and diplomats, citizens of Georgetown, European philosophers, and Cherokee chiefs - were unprecedented in their frequency and bountiful elegance.[1]

Before he took up residence in the unfinished stone palace lately vacated by John and Abigail Adams, Jefferson began to assemble the largest domestic staff he had employed since his years as minister to France. Two Frenchmen as butler and cook and three Irish servants as coachman, valet-porter, and housekeeper formed the skeleton crew for his first months at the President's House. Later he added footmen, apprentice cooks, a scullion, a stable boy, and a washerwoman, bringing what he called his Washington "family" to a fluctuating total of ten to twelve servants.

He turned to Philippe Létombe, French envoy at Philadelphia, for assistance in filling the two most critical staff positions. Acknowledging that a suitable maître d'hôtel did not exist "among the natives of our country," he said he found "as great difficulty in composing my household as I shall probably find in composing an administration." "Honesty and skill in making the dessert are indispensable qualifications," he added. Létombe found the perfect household administrator in Etienne Lemaire, a "portly well-mannered frenchman" - "as much of a gentleman in appearance as any man" - lately in the service of rich Philadelphians William and Anne Willing Bingham. Létombe's second discovery, forty-two year-old chef de cuisine Honoré Julien, brought years of experience from the presidential kitchens of George Washington.

Writing from Monticello in April 1801, Jefferson hoped that Julien had arrived and that everything at the President's House was ready "for the entertainment of company." He returned to Washington at the end of the month to inaugurate the new regime of hospitality. To ensure that Lemaire understood correct Jeffersonian style, he made it clear that "while I wish to have every thing good in it's kind, and handsome in stile, I am a great enemy to waste and useless extravagance, and see them with real pain." Margaret Bayard Smith attested the butler's success in applying his master's principles. At Jefferson's entertainments, she wrote, "republican simplicity was united to Epicurean delicacy; while the absence of splendour ornament and profusion was more than compensated by the neatness, order and elegant sufficiency that pervaded the whole establishment."

In December 1801 members of the Seventh Congress arrived in the capital for the first session. Among the many innovations they found at the Republican court were the informal dinners that had replaced the weekly levees of Washington and Adams. Since each legislator was invited at least once, and many more often, the bulky Congress of almost 150 men dictated a crowded social calendar at the President's House - three dinners a week during the session.

Jefferson's motives for systematically wining and dining the lawmakers were a constant source of debate. Hospitable by nature, he no doubt felt an obligation to brighten the lives of the wifeless public servants billeted in the boarding-houses that had sprouted on the raw expanses of the embryonic capital. An unsympathetic British observer turned this impulse on its head: "Neither could he anywhere else have had the members of the legislature so dependent upon him...for the little amusement and relief which they could obtain after public business; his house and those of the Ministers being in fact almost necessary to them unless they chose to live like bears brutalized and stupefied."

Jefferson also no doubt believed that rational conversation at a table where political discussion was discouraged would serve his declared object of restoring harmony to a society agitated by party strife. He explained the public purpose of his dinners in a letter to a fellow Republican from South Carolina, who said he declined the President's invitations in order to preserve his independence of mind: "I cultivate personal intercourse with the members of the legislature that we may know one another and have opportunities of little explanations of circumstances, which, not understood might produce jealousies and suspicions injurious to the public interest, which is best promoted by harmony and mutual confidence among it's functionaries. I depend much on the members for the local information necessary in local matters, as well as for the means of getting at public sentiment."

Three times a week, therefore, Jefferson sent up to Capitol Hill a dozen printed invitations, which specified a dinner hour of "half after three, or at whatever hour the house may rise." These cards were another source of wonder to the representatives. "It is Th: Jefferson not the President of the United States that invites" wrote a puzzled William Plumer. Federalist legislators could not resist political interpretations of the President's invitation pattern. "It is a matter of curiosity that the first public dining company should be all Federalist," wrote Manasseh Cutler at the beginning of the second session of Congress in December 1802. In 1806, however, a number of Federalists boycotted New Year's Day festivities at the President's House because none of their party had yet been invited to dinner.

Jefferson and Lemaire set up two different entertainment arenas. Most of the Congressional diners gathered in what is now the Green Room. This small dining room, with its chintz curtains and green floorcloth, was also used for intimate dinners with cabinet members and close friends and family. Mrs. Smith applauded the use here of a round or oval table, "a great influence on the conversational powers of Mr. Jefferson's guests," and of course - with neither head nor foot - a democratic solution to the issue of precedence.

Now came the moment to display the art of Julien, who labored invisibly in Jefferson's basement at a large coal-burning range. Mrs. Smith stated that "the excellence and superior skill of his French cook was acknowledged by all who frequented his table." The first and fullest account of an actual menu is that of Massachusetts Federalist Manasseh Cutler: "Rice soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef, a pie called macaroni which appeared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not agreeable. Mr. [Meriwether] Lewis told me there were none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions was made of flour and butter, with a particularly strong liquor mixed with them. Ice cream very good, crust wholly dried, crumbled into thin flakes: a dish somewhat like a pudding - inside white as milk or curd, very porous and light, covered with cream sauce - very fine. Many other jimcracks, a great variety of fruit, plenty of wines, and good."

At subsequent dinners Benjamin Latrobe noted larded venison, Manasseh Cutler enjoyed the beef bouilli, and William Plumer regretted the appearance of portions of the "mammoth cheese," the 1,235-pound gift of the republican citizens of Cheshire, Massachusetts, in 1802 - almost three years before it was served him. Other commentators merely said that the main courses were "handsome," "very good: "very elegant," "neat and plentiful," "excellent," "well furnished," and "elegant and rich." The dessert course was the focus of more particular descriptions. Almost every chronicler referred to the wide variety of pies, fruits, nuts, sweetmeats, and ice cream. Samuel Mitchill was moved to describe the unusual apparition of cold ice cream inside warm pastry, "as if the ice had just been taken from the oven."

Every day, in order to provide the ingredients for Julien's creations, Lemaire took a horse and cart to market. His record of purchases from January 1806 includes seafood like shad, sturgeon, and oysters; immense quantities of meat and poultry; a variety of game including wild ducks and pigeons as well as squirrels; every imaginable vegetable, from asparagus and peas in spring to tomatoes and squash in August; exotic fruits like oranges and pineapples as well as local strawberries and watermelons; and miscellaneous items from hickory nuts to Havana chocolate. What Jefferson called "groceries" - storage items like cheese, crackers, preserves, tea, and spices - were purchased from his friend and private banker, John Barnes. And what Barnes could not provide had to be ordered from France. A large shipment received from Bordeaux in 1806 included olives and olive oil, anchovies, three kinds of almonds, artichoke hearts, tarragon vinegar, Maille mustard, seedless raisins, figs and prunes, Bologna sausage, and a Parmesan cheese.

The small dining room was equipped with a number of tiered dumbwaiters, from which the food was taken without the need of servants. Many witnesses reported that Jefferson himself did the serving. "He performed the honors of the table with great facility," observed Plumer, while Latrobe noted that "Mr. Jefferson said little at diner besides attending to the filling of plates, which he did with great ease and grace for a philosopher." This small room was certainly the scene of an 1809 dinner reported by Mrs. Smith. The only guests, just arrived from Philadelphia, were geologist William Maclure and Quaker philanthropist Caleb Lownes. Maclure, fresh from residence in Paris where espionage among servants was a fact of life, spoke in an undertone inaudible to Jefferson, who chided him: "You need not speak so low. You see we are alone, and 'our walls have no ears.'" Ingredients for this muted meal, revealed in Lemaire's shopping list, included ham, suckling pig, mutton, beef, veal, venison, rabbits, wild and domestic ducks, turkey, partridges, pheasants, dried peas, and "different vegetables."

In the northwest corner of the White House was the larger "public" dining room, which had a rectangular table and a second kind of dumbwaiter - a revolving serving door similar to one Jefferson installed at Monticello. Hetty Ann Barton in 1803 found it second only in interest to the "mammoth cheese," still on display in the East Room. The dumbwaiter was "so contrived that but a few minutes and all appeared or disappeared at once. This machine, fixed in the wall, held all one course, and was turned into the room in a minute."

This large dining room, furnished with an elegant Brussels carpet and massive sideboards, was the site of several formal diplomatic entertainments in the winter of 1805-1806. An attentive thirteen-year-old was present. Jefferson's grandson, [[Thomas Jefferson Randolph]], later recalled that "the president sat at one end of the table and his secretary at the other. ...The maitre d'Hotel announced dinner, remained in the room, seeing that the servants attended to every gentleman but not waiting himself, placing on the first dish of the second course." Lemaire, presumably attired in gentleman's clothing, was assisted by waiters in the presidential livery - blue cloth coats with scarlet facings, silver lace, and gilt buttons, scarlet waistcoats, and corduroy pantaloons. The sideboards of the public dining room were covered with refreshments on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July, the two annual presidential open house days. Chroniclers are unanimous in noting the rich variety of cakes, apple pies and other confectionery, wine, punch, lemonade, and, always, ice cream - even in summer, since Jefferson had an [[ice house]] excavated shortly after taking office. On Independence Day in 1806 Lemaire had to hire an extra servant to turn the crank of the ice cream maker. For these occasions when the company numbered in the hundreds, he purchased many dozens of eggs for making petits fours and Savoy biscuits.

Whether the meal was in the small or large dining room, it was at the end of the last course, when the tablecloth was removed and the "jimcracks" and nuts brought in, that the "harmonizing" effect of the presidential diners began to be felt. Decanters of French wine followed the French cuisine, and "the easy flow of after dinner conversation" so prized by Jefferson served to temper differences and kindle common interests.

His guests remarked on the excellence as well as the reconciling powers of his wines. In 1802 Latrobe found "wine in great variety, from sherry to champagne, and a few decanters of rare Spanish wine, presents from Chevalier D'Yrujo" while Plumer said that "his wine was truly the best I ever drank, particularly his champaign - It is delicious indeed." A year later he still found the wines "very good - there were eight different kinds of which were rich Hungary, and still richer Tokay," sharing the table with "two bottles of water brought from the Mississippi."

At that December 1803 dinner Plumer was benefiting from Jefferson's decision to turn from American merchants to European producers. "The meanness of quality, as well as extravagance of price of the French wines which can be purchased in this country have determined me to seek them in the spot where they grow," he had written in May to his Paris agent. Shortly before the dinner of Federalists attended by Plumer, the presidential wine cellar had received additions of still Champagne, Chambertin Burgundy, Château Filhot sauternes, and Château Rausan Margaux.

The influence of wine and conversation is illustrated in one of Manasseh Cutler's accounts of dining "With his Democratic Majesty." In 1803 two Federalist congressmen, Roger Griswold and John Rutledge, whose virulent attacks on Jefferson had evidently convinced him they were unfit for the circle of social harmony in his dining room, had not received a dinner invitation from the President in that session. When four Federalists, making common cause with their neglected colleagues, refused a diner invitation, it was necessary at the last moment to draft some gentlemen from Georgetown to fill the empty chairs. The atmosphere at the table was strained. Cutler related that "to get rid of the awkwardness we all seemed to feel, a subject occurred to me which I well knew the President always delighted to talk about. I began inquiries about his travels in France, the quality of different kinds of fruit, what their usual desserts were at table, their great varieties of dishes, etc. We went on with the conversation very pleasantly, with scarcely a word from any other person, till we had finished our ice cream. When the wine began to pass round the table a little more freely, all their tongues began to be in motion. We spent the evening tolerably agreeably."

For eight years French food, French wine, and his French servants lightened Jefferson's political labors. After he returned to Monticello in 1809 he wanted to continue the European style of entertainment established in the President's House. He sent off annual orders for French wine and foodstuffs to his agent at Marseilles, but maintaining the culinary standards set by Julien was more difficult. In 1809 Julien travelled to Monticello to give additional tuition to Edy and Fanny, two of Jefferson's slaves who had been trained in the Washington kitchen. But the food was evidently never quite the same. In 1821 Jefferson wrote: "I envy M. Chaumont nothing but his French cook and cuisine. These are luxuries which can neither be forgotten nor possessed in our country."

Honoré Julien, who remained in Washington and established a successful catering dynasty, kept in touch with the President he had served so well. In 1812 he mailed Jefferson his recipe for cream cheese, and in later years he accompanied his New Year's wishes with delicacies unavailable in the Virginia Piedmont - a Swiss cheese and garden seeds in 1818 and wild ducks in 1825. Jefferson responded to the gift of canvasbacks: "They came sound and in good order, and enabled me to regale my friends here with what they had never tasted before. Their delicious flavor was new to them, but what heightened it with me was the proof they brought of your kind recollection of me...I hope you will continue to be prosperous, and I pray you, with my thanks to accept the assurance of my just remembrance of your faithful services to me and my constant and affectionate attachment to you."

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on Lucia C. Stanton, Monticello Keepsake, April 12, 1988.

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