Party Like It's 1799

Party Like It's 1799
Photos by Jon Van Gorder

Thomas Jefferson is best known as our nation’s third president, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the University of Virginia, but he was also a gourmet and enophile. Between a hugely productive garden at his Virginia estate, Monticello, and lavish White House dinners cooked by his French-trained chef, Jefferson liked to eat and drink, and he liked to eat and drink well.

You’d think a president would have more important matters on his mind than how many bottles of Champagne to order when Congress dined at the White House or whether his granddaughters had managed the art of making puddings, but not so. “Jefferson was a polymath, which is a fancy word for genius,” says Dave Dewitt, author of The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2010). “He was continually getting into different things, from experimenting in the vegetable garden to rewriting the Bible.” All, it seemed, bore equal weight with his time and thoughts.

According to Monticello culinary historian Dr. Leni Sorenson, Jefferson was simply an interesting, well-rounded person, the kind of guy everyone liked to have at a dinner party because he could chat up anyone on any subject. “Food and wine was just an extension of that,” she says. “Jefferson wasn’t extraordinary in appreciating good food and wine, but he was more nuanced about it.”

Gourmet Food Circa 1800

Like today’s locavores, Jefferson came from an era when most people ate what they raised themselves, buying only a few extras like coffee, tea, chocolate, vanilla and sugar, Sorensen says. But—partly because of the time he spent in Paris as the U.S. Ambassador to France—Jefferson thought imported extras like olive oil, Parmesan, French mustard, anchovies and wine were necessities, not luxuries.

“Jefferson’s interest in food was somewhat unusual in that food and its preparation were usually relegated to women,” DeWitt says. But when Jefferson became president in 1801, he had been a widower for almost 20 years. Not only was he forced to manage social as well as political matters, but his interest in cooking sprang from the desire to eat well.

And what, exactly, did he eat? Presidential records show that Jefferson dined promptly at 4 p.m. in the White House and at 3:30 p.m. at Monticello. One congressman, Manasseh Cutler, recorded a presidential dinner from February 1802, which consisted of rice soup, round of beef, turkey, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef, a “pie called macaroni,” ice cream, pudding, a great variety of fruit and plenty of wine.

His White House meals seem skewed towards meat dishes, but Jefferson himself was a vegetable fanatic. “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an ailment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet,” he wrote.

In his retirement years, Jefferson used the garden at Monticello both as a source of food and as his personal scientific laboratory. He collected seeds from all over the world and tried them out in his garden, taking meticulous notes on which plants fared well, and which didn’t. His collection was full of rare and unusual plants for the time—chickpeas, cayenne peppers, pumpkins, tomatoes, lima beans and okra. He dreamed of making a local oil that could replace his beloved Italian olive oil, and experimented with sesame oil for dressing salads.

The Founding Enophile

Before he ever set foot on European soil, Jefferson was already an avid wine devotee, drinking claret (red Bordeaux), Madeira and Sherry before and during the Revolution. His wine tastes were only amplified when he spent significant time in France and toured vineyards in Italy and Germany.

“Jefferson certainly had a good palate,” says Gabriele Rausse, one of the founders of the modern Virginia wine region and the person who oversees the vineyards at Monticello. “There’s a story that the wine Jefferson preferred from Bordeaux became the first growths half a century later.” Indeed, his orders included some of today’s top houses: Haut-Brion, Lafite, Margaux and Yquem.

Of course, one wonders how these top wines tasted 200 years ago, before modern winemaking techniques could all but guarantee a blockbuster. Rausse believes the wines were quite good. “Today we crush the grapes and check the sugar, acidity and pH. They were just guessing back then, but even without the science, they had figured out what to do to make good wine,” he says. “For example, Jefferson said when you press your grapes, you should discard the last part of the pressing. He probably didn’t know why, but including the last pressing makes the pH go up, and a low pH is necessary to prolong the shelf life of the wine.”

Back home, Jefferson tried unsuccessfully to cultivate vines at Monticello—after 30 vintages he didn’t have a single bottle of wine to show for it. Though some scholars attribute his failure to disease in the vineyard, Rausse believes Jefferson simply didn’t make grape-growing a priority. (After all, he had his hands full with a number of competing projects.) Jefferson would likely be pleased that the Virginia wine industry has thrived despite his failure. Since the 1970s, pioneers like Rausse have succeeded in making wines that the world is beginning to notice. In honor of this success, we’ve paired a French and a Virginian wine with each of these recipes, which are themselves blends of French and Virginian cookery.

A Modern Jefferson-Style Party

We realize you don’t have an army of cooks and a working plantation to supply ingredients for your dinner table (not to mention the appetite to put away no less than six meat dishes and three or four desserts in a single meal), but you can still throw a Jefferson- style dinner party with these recipes, adapted from Jefferson’s favorites by DeWitt. Perhaps in remembering Jefferson’s food, we can channel a piece of his brilliant mind as well.

Macaroni and Spinach Bake

Jefferson discovered macaroni in Europe and become so fond of it he had it delivered with his wine shipments. A recipe from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824) calls for boiled macaroni to be baked with Parmesan and butter, but this version also includes spinach, since it was almost certainly grown in the Monticello garden.

1 (7-ounce) package uncooked dried
elbow macaroni
¼ cup dried breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
½ teaspoon marjoram
¼ teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground
1 (10-ounce) package fresh
spinach, chopped
1½ cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 350°F. In an uncovered pot full of salted, boiling water, cook the macaroni for 10 minutes. Drain the pasta, and set aside. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs into a buttered, 3-quart casserole, and set aside.

Melt the butter in a medium skillet until sizzling and add the onion, garlic, marjoram and pepper. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the onion is soft (2 to 3 minutes). Stir in the spinach. Stir constantly until the spinach is heated through (about 3 minutes). Stir in the cooked macaroni and cheese, and remove from the heat. Spoon the mixture into the prepared casserole, pressing gently. Bake for 20–25 minutes. Serves 6.

Wine Recommendation: Jefferson enjoyed the 1785 vintage from Meursault’s Goutte d’Or vineyard. Present-day producers of this powerful premier cru include Louis Jadot and Louis Latour. Closer to home, Linden’s 2008 Hardscrabble Chardonnay from Virginia has rich buttery notes to match the buttery pasta.

Bouilli (Beef Pot Roast) with Jefferson’s Own Mashed Potatoes

This recipe is a hybrid of boiled beef, Jefferson’s favorite, and a beef roast. Both dishes were common at the time, and a recipe for both the Bouilli and the potatoes survive in Jefferson’s own hand.

For the roast:
¼ cup bacon fat or vegetable oil
1 3-pound beef rump roast
3 cups beef stock or water
4 carrots, cut into 1-inch length
2 celery stalks, cut into 1-inch length
1 large onion, quartered
1 bay leaf

For the gravy:
Flour, as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the potatoes:
4 large potatoes, peeled and cut in eighths
¼ pound (1 stick) butter
1 cup half-and-half
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Prepare the roast and gravy: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat the fat or oil in a large Dutch oven, and brown the beef on all sides. Add the beef stock, bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Cover and transfer to the oven and cook for 2 hours. Add the carrots, celery, onion and bay leaf; cover and cook in the oven for another 1 to 1½ hours until the meat is very tender and the vegetables are cooked. Transfer the meat and vegetables to a large bowl, and keep warm in the oven. Reserve the stock and pan juices. In a small bowl, dissolve flour in water. Bring juices to a boil, gradually whisk in flour mixture and cook on top of the stove over medium heat until reduced by half. Season the gravy with salt and pepper.

Prepare the potatoes: In a large pot, cover the potatoes with water, and boil until they are pierced easily with a fork, about 15–20 minutes. Drain the potatoes, and force them through a ricer into a bowl. Add the butter and half-and half, stir well and whip lightly with an electric mixer until they are smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve: Slice the roast thinly, and arrange with the vegetables on individual plates. Add the mashed potatoes, and ladle the gravy over the sliced roast and the potatoes. Serves 6–8.

Wine Recommendation: According to John Hailman, author of Thomas Jefferson on Wine (University Press of Mississippi), Jefferson enjoyed Château Haut-Brion and Château Margaux while living in Paris. If these first-growth Bordeaux don’t fit in your budget, go with a more accessible offering like Château de Pez or Château Coufran, or try a Virginia wine, such as Barboursville’s 2006 Octagon (a Bordeaux- inspired blend) or Gabriele Rausse’s 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which stand up nicely to the beef.

Asparagus in the French Way, with Lemaire’s Raspberry Vinaigrette

While asparagus grew wild in the colonial era, it was rather unusual at the time to cultivate it in the garden, let alone serve it dressed with a French-style vinaigrette. At Monticello, raspberry vinaigrette was often used to make a refreshing drink, mixed with water and simple syrup.

1 pound fresh asparagus, ends trimmed
off and peeled
Water as needed
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons raspberry vinaigrette

Cut the asparagus spears all to the same length. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the asparagus, reduce the heat to medium and cook until asparagus is just tender—do not overcook. Remove and drain the asparagus, place in a bowl and pour the vinaigrette over it. If the vinaigrette has separated, shake it again just before adding. Serves 4.

To make raspberry vinaigrette: Place 4 cups raspberries into a glass bowl and lightly crush with a pestle or large spoon. Add 2 cups red wine vinegar, cover and let stand for 48 hours. Strain the vinegar through a fine mesh screen. Pour 2 tablespoons in a glass jar and add ¼ cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons chopped freshmixed herbs, including basil, Italian, parsley and oregano or tarragon, plus black pepper and salt to taste. Shake well. Reserve remaining raspberry vinegar for future use.

Wine Recommendation: Jefferson drank white Graves, blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, which would complement this zingy asparagus dish. Two properties he specifically mentions that are still in existence are Château Haut-Brion and Château Carbonnieux. From Virginia, try Jefferson Vineyards’ 2009 Viognier, which features a beautiful bouquet of honeysuckle, ripe apricots and peaches.

Strawberries in Madeira and Cream

Like many colonists, Jefferson ordered and drank large quantities of Madeira, which was often served with or in desserts. This recipe combines the sweet punch of Madeira with fresh spring strawberries, which Jefferson called “Arcadian dainties.”

4 cups fresh strawberries, sliced
2 cups Madeira
Confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling
1½ cups heavy cream, whipped

In a bowl, combine the strawberries with the Madeira and mix well. Marinate for two hours. Drain the strawberries, and place in 4 bowls. Sprinkle sugar lightly over them, and top with a dollop of whipped cream. Serves 4.

Wine Recommendation: Serve additional Madeira, or Jefferson’s favorite dessert wine, Château d’Yquem, to maintain the French theme. From Virginia, the opulence and richness of Barboursville’s 2006 Malvaxia Reserve, made in a passito style using partially dried grapes, is a splendid match.

Thomas Jefferson Myths Busted

Jefferson is credited with introducing and inventing a lot of things, but he mostly popularized foods (rather than single-handedly inventing it all), says Dave DeWitt, author of The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2010). Among the foods he did not invent:

Ice cream: One of the few recipes in Jefferson’s own hand is for ice cream, but that doesn’t mean he invented it, Sorensen says. “He liked it a lot, and back then they were always trying to figure out how to use up fresh milk and eggs, because it didn’t keep.” In fact, George Washington seems to have had the first ice cream maker on record.

Vanilla: In a letter to his secretary in Paris, Jefferson lamented the dearth of vanilla in town, begging him to procure some in France. Commentators have taken his words to mean it simply wasn’t available in the U.S., but Sorensen says it was probably just not available at that moment.

Macaroni: In Italy, Jefferson discovered macaroni, and he had his secretary take a special trip to Naples to secure a “macaroni mould” so he could make it at home. Though it was an unusual dish in the U.S. at the time, “he certainly wasn’t the first American to eat macaroni,” DeWitt says.

Wine: Though he was America’s first wine aficionado, Jefferson didn’t produce a single vintage of wine even after thirty years of cultivating vines. According to Charlottesville winemaker Gabriele Rausse, Jefferson had a deeper motive for grape-growing than simply supplying his own household with vino: he wanted America to become a premiere exporter of all kinds of goods, including wine.

Published on March 2, 2011