Dinners were one of the highlights of the day for Thomas Jefferson and his guests. Guests to Monticello noted that the first dinner bell customarily rang at half past three o'clock, and the second called them to the table at four.1 When they arrived in the Dining Room, they quite likely found Thomas Jefferson reading. Having a self-described "canine appetite for reading" and hating to waste even a moment waiting for others to gather, he kept books on the fireplace mantel.2
Dinner was the largest of the two meals of the day, though tea was often served later. While no visitors recorded menus of dinners at Monticello, we do have descriptions of meals served at the President's House (now the White House) during Thomas Jefferson's terms. Jefferson's presidency was marked by lavish hospitality; in the words of one guest, "[N]ever before had such dinners been given in the President's House."3
Another guest describes a relatively "inelegant" meal: "Dined at the P.'s [President's] – ... Dinner not as elegant as when we dined before. Rice soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef, a pie called macaroni .... Ice cream very good ... ; a dish somewhat like a pudding ... covered with cream sauce – very fine. Many other jimcracks, a great variety of fruit, plenty of wines, and good."4 Aside from the food, guests at the President's House during Jefferson's tenure were often surprised (and occasionally offended) by his practice of seating guests in the "pell-mell," or somewhat random, style, rather than according to rank.5
Half-Virginian, Half-French Style
Jefferson's culinary preferences were in part formed during his years as Minister to France. Even before his time abroad, Jefferson had arranged for a French chef in Annapolis, Maryland, to train one of his slaves. On learning of his diplomatic appointment, Jefferson decided to bring the enslaved James Hemings with him to study "the art of cookery."6
Family recipes that have survived – eight in Jefferson's own hand – include boeuf à la mode (a beef stew), blanc mange (almond cream), and nouilly à maccaroni (a pasta dough). Outside of France, Jefferson enjoyed delicacies such as waffles in Holland.7 On his return to America, many such dishes, including ice cream, were considered novelties. He also imported a variety of foods, such as Italian olive oil and French mustard.8
The French influence endured at Jefferson's table for the rest of his life. In 1824, Daniel Webster noted that dinners at Monticello were "served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance."9
Vines and Wines
While in France Jefferson cultivated his love of the fine wines of Europe and began a life-long habit of collecting wines – and vines – for America.10 Known throughout the States as a wine connoisseur, Jefferson advised presidents George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe on the best wines for executive functions.11 His cellar contained bottles from France, Portugal, Spain, Hungary, Germany, and Italy, and he served wine after dinner daily in the belief that it was good for the health.
Dinner at Monticello was an occasion for lively, lingering conversation, and Jefferson did not want talk to be hindered by the presence of house slaves, who might either interrupt or eavesdrop. Consequently, Jefferson and his guests served themselves with the help of a collection of dumbwaiters, two of which were hidden in the fireplace and were used to bring wine up from the cellar.12
Creating Your Own Meals
The two most important published sources for the preparation of a Jeffersonian dinner are Marie Kimball's Thomas Jefferson's Cook Book and Damon Lee Fowler's Dining at Monticello.13 The essays included in these two books provide good background information about Jefferson's interest in French cuisine, his relish for vegetables, and other aspects of his culinary tastes.
No menus of dinners at Monticello have survived. Visitors to the President's House from 1801 to 1809 did provide some information on specific dishes. These, plus appropriate recipes from the Cook Book and Dining at Monticello, can be used to plan your own menu. A good source to round out the menu is Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife, first published in 1824.14
Only a few recipes in Jefferson's own hand have survived. Kimball includes eight of these (altered for modern cooks), plus Jefferson's list of appropriate entrees, on pages 29-38. It should be noted that Kimball has altered the wording of most of the recipes to accommodate them to twentieth-century practices.
On pages 41-117 of Kimball's book are a number of recipes taken from a manuscript cookbook in the hand of Jefferson's granddaughter, Virginia Randolph Trist (1801-1882). No original Monticello cookbook survives, but some of Jefferson's granddaughters apparently copied from a lost original. Virginia's manuscript is the most complete to survive, but it too seems to be missing some of its parts, as certain food types – like vegetables and breads – are underrepresented.
Kimball has included many post-Jefferson recipes from the Trist manuscript along with those of the Monticello period. If historical accuracy is desired, only the recipes with the following attributions should be used:
Mary Randolph. Martha's sister-in-law and author of a cookbook, The Virginia Housewife (1824). There was much contact between the Monticello family and Mrs. Randolph (in Richmond) in the ten years before Jefferson's death.