Thomas Jefferson arrived at the White House on March 4, 1801. At the time, it was called the President’s House. It took a few months for Jefferson to settle in. But before long, he began hosting elaborate dinners at the White House. These dinners incorporated his love of both American and French cuisine. According to one observer, “Never before had such dinners been given in the President’s House, nor such a variety of the finest and most costly wines.”
Jefferson installed Frenchman Honoré Julien as chef de cuisine. Julien had also worked for George Washington. And he also hired Etienne Lemaire as maître d’hôtel.
Jefferson wanted to make sure that his staff understood his efficient style of keeping house. In a letter to Lemaire, he wrote, “while I wish to have everything good in its kind, and handsome in stile [sic], I am a great enemy to waste and useless extravagance, and see them with real pain.”
Each day, Lemaire drove a horse and cart one mile east to the older Potomac River port city of Georgetown. There, he bought the fresh foods needed by the house. Over one week, an average supply might include 120 pounds of beef, 90 pound of mutton, 10 pounds of lard, and eight pounds of butter. He also purchased a large number of ducks, partridges, pheasants, pigeons, and turkeys.
Jefferson served every imaginable vegetable at the White House. Many, he had cultivated himself at Monticello. Desserts included apples, oranges, pineapples, and watermelons. He also served cakes, custards, jellies, macaroons, peach flambé, petits fours, and Savoy biscuits. He even served ice cream made from snow.
In addition to daily trips to purchase local ingredients, Lemaire ordered many exotic items from France. These included almonds, artichoke hearts, figs, Maille Dijon mustard, prunes, Smyrna raisins, and vinegar. Jefferson also imported wines from France, Italy and Spain.
In 1802, Jefferson served potatoes “in the French manner” at the White House. These French fries caused quite a sensation. Especially since the U.S. was trying to stay out of the Napoleonic War between France and Great Britain. The U.S. did stay out of the conflict until the War of 1812. Perhaps they should have called them “freedom fries.”
Jefferson also served typical Virginia dishes such as batter cakes, corn bread, fried apples and ham at the White House. He also served “Macaroni pie.” This was his own version of mac & cheese. Chef Julien took broken pasta noodles, covered with them with butter and parmesan cheese, and baked them.
Americans hadn’t heard of pasta until Jefferson brought it back from Paris. Jefferson even wrote down one recipe himself for what we now call spaghetti.
Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia Randolph copied the recipes he brought back from France. She also copied recipes developed at Monticello and the White House. This recipe book passed down through many generations as an heirloom.
In the 1930s, Jefferson’s great-great granddaughter Fanny Burke presented the original recipe book to the Jefferson Memorial Foundation shortly before her death.
The cookbook was finally published in 1938. With permission by Marie Kimball. The cookbook has since gone out of print. But Jefferson’s culinary legacy lives on in the many foods that he cultivated, cooked, and introduced to the new America.
Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 at the age of 83. It was the 50th anniversary of America’s declaration of independence from England.
With all his accomplishments, Jefferson wanted only three things placed on his memorial:
– Author of the Declaration of Independence
– Author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
– Father of the University of Virginia
We remember him for these three accomplishments. And yet so much more.