Jefferson’s table revolutionizes American cuisine: Blending vittles and visitors in Virginia

Yesterday, I referenced Thomas Jefferson’s critical idea of an agrarian democracy, where each citizen has some land for growing food and medicine. I firmly believe that in our modern era, small farms are still the key to helping every day Americans reclaim their health and independence from crony, corporatist medicine and big food.

Of course, Jefferson had his own “small” piece of land in Virginia at Monticello, where he helped revolutionize American cuisine in the earliest part of our history. In fact, we still enjoy many healthy and delicious foods he introduced to the young nation more than 200 years ago…

Jefferson cultivates a world of delights at Monticello

At Monticello, Jefferson grew and harvested Native American crops, like beans, corn, peppers, potatoes, squashes, and tomatoes. All of which were relatively new to European settlers in America.

He eventually grew more than 250 varieties of vegetables, from both Europe and the Americas—including artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, eggplant, kale, and peas. He also grew fresh greens for healthy salads, such as cress, endive, lettuce, peppergrass, sorrel, and spinach. And he dressed his salads with imported olive oil and tarragon vinegar.

Of course, after the American Revolution, Jefferson worked in Paris as U.S. Ambassador to France, our most important ally. And he took food tours throughout France and Italy for a year, from 1787 to 1788.

In fact, in Nice, France (where my mother’s family is from), he toured orange and olive groves. In Italy, he learned about making cheese, olive oil, and pasta (also known as “macaroni”—which was a real feather in his cap!).

In the Poe River Valley of Northern Italy, Jefferson secretly filled his pockets with the unhusked grains of premium rice to take back home with him. (Even after he had been warned that taking this special rice out of the Piemonte region of Italy was punishable by death.)

Back in the U.S. in the early 1800s, the rice crop in the South became far more important than cotton would become by the mid-1800s. In fact, around the year 1816, a Carolina legislature had voted to end slavery. But the rice crop was so bountiful that year, planters put off the measure until after that year’s rice crop was safely brought in. And, tragically, they didn’t get back around to ending slavery until it was abolished nationwide almost 50 years later, after a bloody Civil War.

The blending of vittles and visitors in Virginia

Jefferson also visited Belgium and Holland (the Netherlands), where he sampled waffles for the first time. He even brought back the waffle iron to America—along with the technique for making mustard from Dijon and frying thin-sliced potato sticks from France.

Of course, Jefferson was famous for sharing his love of new foods and preparation techniques at his home in Virginia. In fact, in those days, American citizens could even visit and dine with the founding fathers. And Daniel Webster, then a U.S. Senator from New England, wrote that visitors to Monticello were, “served half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance.”

Edmund Bacon, the overseer at Monticello, recalled visitors showing up “in gangs” to sample Jefferson’s famous hospitality and table. Bacon observed that such visitors “mostly ate him out of house and home.” The same thing happened to George Washington at Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia.

During these meals, Jefferson served many dishes from Europe. Most of which had never before been seen in America. This blending of flavors and cultures contributed to making a rich, diverse, and healthy American diet in the early days.

Jefferson continued to welcome visitors to Monticello throughout his retirement from public life. But the expenses of keeping up the monumental estate—as well as housing and feeding prodigious numbers of visitors—contributed greatly to his massive debt during the final years of his life.

Jefferson’s influence endures into 21st century

As you may recall, Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, within hours of his friend and former President John Adams. It was the 50th anniversary of America’s declaration of independence from Great Britain. (I actually began preparing this article on April 2nd, Jefferson’s birthdate in 1743, as I was looking ahead to prepare for the July 4th holiday—with which his memory, life, and death will be forever linked.)

After Jefferson’s death, the estate changed hands several times. It was eventually sold to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which turned it into a living national monument to Jefferson and to his important concept of an agrarian democracy.

All in all, Jefferson contributed more to the small American farm and the American table than any other single individual of his era. We owe him a great debt for the foods he pioneered. Especially because we can also grow these foods ourselves today on a small-scale, as part of the new “American revolution in eating.”

So, this holiday weekend, I hope you find yourself inspired by our 3rd President of the United States to cook up something delicious from your very own garden—or from a local farmer.