by Lauren Oakes, Curatorial Intern, with Diane Ehrenpreis, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts
On this day 195 years ago, 11 July 1824, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Richmond merchant Bernard Peyton asking him to procure 20 pounds of tin. He explained that “We have been a year or two without the use of such of our kitchen utensils as, being of copper, need tinning.” Jefferson was rightly concerned about the worn out tin lining of his copper cookware, describing it as “indispensable for safety.” Tin lining prevented copper from leaching into food and exposing diners to poison. By 1824, his French pots and pans, acquired in the late 1780s, had worn to such an extent that they were out of commission for one, or even two years.
Our curators had not realized that the celebrated “half Virginian, half French” cuisine created by enslaved cooks using decades old pots was ever off the menu. Copper cookware is essential for the successful execution of the French cuisine that Jefferson favored because it conducts heat with precision. As implied in his letter, the inability to use the French copper for such a long time meant that the enslaved cooks utilized more mundane iron cookware, adapting or forgoing recipes that relied upon French techniques, such as delicate sauces. The situation in the kitchen was ultimately resolved when Peyton secured the tin from a contact in New York later that summer. By the time Daniel Webster visited Monticello in December 1824, he noted that the hybrid cuisine was offered “in good taste and abundance” for guests and family to savor.