Guests to Monticello noted that the first dinner bell customarily rang at three o'clock, and the second called them to the table at four. When they arrived in the Dining Room, they quite likely found Thomas Jefferson reading.
At Monticello, food culture and dining were significant parts of daily life. Though Jefferson's desire for French style food and his interest in gastronomical cultures influenced how food was prepared at Monticello, it was enslaved African Americans who were chiefly responsible for the "rich" and "elegant" cuisine, literally from farm to table.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
Olivia Brown: "He enjoys his dinner well, taking with meat a large proportion of vegetables. He has a strong preference for the wines of the Continent, of which he has many sorts of excellent quality, having been more than commonly successful in his mode of importing and preserving them. Dinner is served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance. No wine is put on the table till the cloth is removed." Giving us an insight into what it was like to dine at Monticello, this description came from Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster in December of 1824.
At Monticello, food culture and dining were significant parts of daily life. Jefferson's love of French cuisine was combined with what he described as "plantation fare" to create this unique French-Virginian style that Webster described.
Jefferson cultivated a reverence for French food throughout his life, and when he was appointed as Foreign Minister to France, he brought with him an enslaved man named James Hemings. Jefferson brought Hemings to Paris with the express purpose of having him trained in French cuisine. After training under other French chefs, Hemings served as the chef de cuisine in Jefferson's Paris home.
While living in France, Jefferson dined at the court of King Louis XVI every Tuesday, only deepening his love of French food. Upon his return to the United States, he brought crates of European goods, like art and furniture, but he also brought back a number of food items, including things like mustard, vinegar, raisins, nectarines, macaroni, almonds, cheese, anchovies, olive oil, and approximately 680 bottles of French wine. According to early Jefferson biographers, however, some Americans, like Patrick Henry, were a bit put off by Jefferson's devotion to French food, saying "Thomas Jefferson came home so Frenchified, he has abjured his native victuals in favor of French cuisine."
Though Jefferson's desire for French style food and his interest in gastronomical cultures influenced how food was prepared at Monticello, it was enslaved African Americans who were chiefly responsible for the "rich" and "elegant" cuisine, literally from farm to table.
Most of the ingredients used in the meals were coming from the Monticello plantation, either grown in Jefferson's 1,000-foot vegetable garden or in the personal gardens of enslaved people. Bagwell Granger, an agricultural laborer, tended a garden at his home in the small amount of time he didn't spend working. On Sundays, some members of the enslaved community made extra money by selling some of their items to the Jefferson family. Granger sold squash, melons, cucumbers, and notably, hops, that would later be used for brewing beer.
Enslaved people also harvested the wheat and grains from the plantation fields, planted and tended to the vegetable garden, and raised chickens and other animals as well. Once the ingredients were acquired, they were then placed into the capable hands of the chefs and kitchen staff.
After James Hemings returned from France, he worked as a chef in Jefferson's home in Philadelphia. At some point, he negotiated his freedom by agreeing to train his younger brother, Peter Hemings, in the art of French cooking in exchange for papers of manumission. In 1793, Frenchman Adrien Petit signed a witness statement to this agreement, and Jefferson formally freed Hemings three years later in 1796.
Peter Hemings served as chef at Monticello from 1796 until Jefferson's retirement in 1809, and later specialized in brewing and malting in beer production. While president, Jefferson sent for three enslaved women - Edith Fossett, Frances Hern, and Ursula Granger. They traveled to Washington DC, where they too learned French cuisine from a hired French chef named Honore Julien. Edith Fossett then became the head cook during Jefferson's retirement period, with her sister-in-law Frances Hern at her side.
The kitchen would have been a tirelessly busy place at Monticello. Outfitted with a large open hearth and a then state-of-the-art stew stove for cooking, Fossett and Hern would have also directed younger enslaved people like, Israel Gillette, in the peeling, slicing and preparation of ingredients for dishes. Each meal had a number of small dishes and accompaniments, as was the French style, that were prepared in the kitchen then brought to a smaller kitchen underneath the Dining Room where the platters could be warmed and sauced. Once ready for service, platters were brought from the cellar up a set of stairs and placed on the shelves of a revolving door to be spun into the Dining Room itself. Head Butler Burwell Colbert oversaw the meal service as well as the one or two younger enslaved men who served as waiters for Jefferson, his family, and his guests.
It's hard to say if Jefferson had favorite dishes, but each chef had their specialties. James Hemings was known for his flawless execution of "snow eggs," a cream and custard dessert. Peter Hemings, though known later for his beer, also made muffins that Jefferson sent for when he was living in Washington. Edith Fossett's gingerbread was a favorite of Jefferson's granddaughters as well.
Meals centered around vegetable dishes, with meat being eaten less often and in smaller quantities. Vegetables of all kind were served as the vegetable garden was filled with around 70 different species and over 300 varieties. Jefferson favored English peas and large salads filled with a variety of lettuces, sprouts, and other greens. Artichokes, asparagus, tomatoes, and other vegetables still very much enjoyed today appeared on the Chinese porcelain and silver platters adorning Jefferson's table. Enslaved chefs also incorporated African influences, and vegetables like okra were used specifically to make okra soup that was enjoyed frequently by the Jefferson family.
Thomas Jefferson is often spoken about as an important figure in American food culture and the melding of cuisines and the early Republic. We also remember though, that it was men like James and Peter Hemings, and women like Edith Fossett and Frances Hern, who brought these dishes to life and combined traditional French, local Virginian, and their own personal African styles and techniques into one, unique blend that people still remember today.
Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.
Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.