This summer, when you slice up a beautiful, red, heirloom tomato, thank Thomas Jefferson. He pioneered the cultivation of tomatoes. And brought many of Europe’s finest delicacies to America. He also promoted American foods while in France. In fact, Thomas Jefferson may be this country’s original “foodie,” to apply a modern term.
Born 270 years ago, on April 13, 1743, Thomas Jefferson became an accomplished agronomist, architect, botanist, inventor, lawyer, linguist, mapmaker, musician, politician, scientist, and statesman.
It is now fashionable for ivory tower academics and other rabble-rousers to attempt to make names for themselves by denigrating Jefferson’s reputation. They use revisionist and often imaginative “history.” And they criticize his life using an anachronistic, politically correct standard from our woefully out-of-joint modern sensibilities.
For example, much is made of Jefferson’s dying in debt. But there’s a reason why this happened.
During the final decades of his life, his innovative home at Monticello became a de facto national monument. (This was long before the National Mall in D.C. was transformed into a publicly funded, neoclassical circus. Designed to distract visiting citizens away from how badly they are being fleeced by both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.)
Monticello was a true “destination” for travelers. Complete with a complimentary commissary.
Edmund Bacon, the overseer of Monticello, recalled visitors showing up “in gangs.” They “mostly ate him out of house and home.”
Daniel Webster observed that visitors to Monticello were “served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance.” The former President served such delights as Dijon mustard, French fried potatoes, Parmesan cheese, and vanilla ice cream. Note the origins of these delightful dishes: Dijon, France and Parma, Italy.
So Monticello actually served as the first “continental” restaurant in America. (In this case, “continental” meant European in taste.)
Before Jefferson, early cuisine in America appeared rather bleak. New England Puritans ate porridge, meat, and boiled vegetables. The Quakers of the Delaware Valley ate scrapple. They boiled this concoction of pork brains, organs, and grains into a mush. Then, they fried it. Southern aristocrats fared quite a bit better, even early on. They dined on roast beef, stewed swan, and fricasseed chicken with herbs.
Europeans flocked to America at this time. They wanted to avoid European bad weather, crowding and population growth. And escape poor farming practices. Remember, Europeans only grew 16 different plants as crops, going all the way back to ancient Rome.
The Americas must have seemed like a cornucopia. With abundant land. And with new cultigens. Such as beans, chocolate, corn, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes. Plus, in America, they could grow cash crops such as rice, sugar and tobacco.
No early American contributed more to this American bounty than did Jefferson.
Between 1772 and 1782 at Monticello, Jefferson grew more than 250 varieties of vegetables. From both Europe and the Americas. These included artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, eggplant, kale, peas, and squash.
As I said earlier, Jefferson pioneered the cultivation of tomatoes. Prior to this, most people considered tomatoes poisonous members of the Solanaceia family. This included the deadly nightshade plant. Tomato sauce did not appear on an Italian menu until the early 19th century.
Jefferson also grew ingredients for healthy salads, such as cress, endive, lettuce, peppergrass, sorrel, and spinach. They dressed the salads at Monticello with imported olive oil and tarragon vinegar.
Jefferson’s wife Martha died in 1782. Only then did he decide to return to politics. And in 1784, he agreed to go to Paris as the U.S. Ambassador to the court of Louis XVI. There, he joined Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Paul Jones as diplomats in Europe.
Patrick Henry famously stated “give me liberty, or give me death.” Apparently, he also got indigestion. And he accused Jefferson of becoming “Frenchified.”
In reality, Jefferson kept close to his American roots. He grew Indian corn in his courtyard in Paris. And he promoted American foods in Europe. He sent for seeds of cantaloupe, hominy corn, and sweet potatoes from Virginia. And he asked James Madison to ship over a barrel of apples. As well as cranberries, pecans and Virginia hams.
In 1787 and 1788, Jefferson took trips throughout France and Italy. Sometimes, the repatriated Marquis de Lafayette joined him. In Nice, he visited olive and orange groves. In Italy, he learned more about cultivating olives. He also learned about making parmesan cheese and “Maccaroni” pasta. This was a real feather in his cap.
In the Poe River Valley, Jefferson filled his pockets with unhusked grains of rice– even though he had been warned that taking rice from the Piemonte was punishable by death. This fertile region is in modern-day Italy. It lies between the Alps to the north and the Appenines to the south.
Jefferson also visited Holland. He sampled his first waffle there. And brought back a waffle iron to the States.
Jefferson left Paris soon after July 14, 1789. On this day, the Parisian mob stormed the Bastille and set off the French Revolution.
Jefferson returned only briefly to Virginia. Soon thereafter, President Washington appointed him the first U.S. Secretary of State. Jefferson took up his duties in New York City in early 1790. Ten years later, Jefferson became the third President of the United States.