Brain Pickings

How Thomas Jefferson Pioneered the Tomato, Championed Urban Farming, and Taught Americans to Make Coffee

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The Founding Father’s lesser-known but monumental contributions to modern culture.

If you, like me, believed that Julia Child brought French cuisine to America, you’re off — nearly two centuries off. It turns out we owe the feat to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1784 made a deal with one of his slaves, 19-year-old James “Jame” Hemmings, to apprentice him to one of France’s finest chefs. In exchange for going along with the plan, Jefferson would grant Jame his freedom. “Thus began the most interesting and influential culinary partnership in American history,” writes Thomas J. Craughwell in Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America (public library). But perhaps most fascinating in Craughwell’s account is the role Jefferson played in championing vegetables and minimal animal products more than 200 years before Michael Pollan, popularizing indispensable plant species previously thought inedible, and even pioneering modern-day buzzword concepts like urban farming.

For starters, Jefferson took special pride in his diet. In a letter to his physician in 1819, he wrote:

I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.

And it was an active, actionable pride that he backed with practical tactics. Craughwell writes:

In his thousand-foot-long vegetable garden, Jefferson grew almost all the vegetables, fruits, and herbs he needed to feed himself, his family, and their guests. Over a period of nearly sixty years, he experimented with ninety-nine species of vegetables and three hundred thirty varieties. He also cultivated plants that were unknown in his neighbors’ gardens, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and peanuts.

Jefferson was ahead of his time in many ways, including the intersection of food and aesthetics and the notion of edible architecture:

The man who built one of the most beautiful homes in eighteenth-century America also desired his garden to be visually appealing. Along the border of the square in which he grew tomatoes, for example, he planted okra and sesame plants. The smooth, red skin of the tomatoes contrasted with the tough, deep green of the okra, while the sesame plant, standing five or six feet tall, added height and visual interest. When he planted eggplant, he alternated white and purple varieties. The cherry trees he placed along the walkway through the garden, where they would provide shade.

So intense was Jefferson’s passion for vegetation that he once wrote:

There is not a shoot of grass that springs uninteresting to me.

More than mere curiosity, however, Jefferson’s relationship with vegetables was an almost political one, reining in monumental cultural shifts in culinary perceptions:

He was one of the first Virginians to grow and eat tomatoes, or ‘tomatas,’ as he called them. Most Americans thought the tomato was poisonous (and, indeed, it is a member of the deadly nightshade family, though its low toxicity levels pose no risk to humans), and so it was an astonishing event when, in 1806, Jefferson served them to guests at the President’s House.

He also had a soft spot for cabbage:

[Étienne Lemaire, Jefferson’s maître d’hôtel] records fifty-one purchases in 1806 alone. At Monticello, Jefferson not only raised his own cabbage — eighteen varieties in al — he also bought some from his slaves. Closely related to cabbage is sea kale, which was also grown at Monticello; Jefferson found a variety that was perennial, thus eliminating the expense of purchasing seedlings every year.

His plant pioneering didn’t stop there:

In 1812 Jefferson became the first gardener in his neighborhood to plant the hot Texas bird pepper, which his cooks used to spice up sauces. And he must have been fond of asparagus, too. Although he devoted only one square in his garden to the vegetable, he tended it with special care, mulching the plot with tobacco leaves and fertilizing it with manure. His Garden Book includes entires for twenty-two years that record the date on which the first plate of asparagus was brought to his table.

In another chapter on how Jefferson pioneered African dishes at the Monticello, Craughwell shares the Founding Father’s curious coffee recipe:

On one measure of the coffee ground into meal pour three measures of boiling water.

boil on hot ashes lined with coal till the meal disappears from the top, when it will be precipitated.

pour in three times through a flannel strainer.

it will yield 2 1/3 measures of clear coffee.

an ounce of coffee meal makes 1 ½ cup of clear coffee in this way.

the flannel must be rinsed out in hot or cold water for every making.

The rest of Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée is an equally delectable chronicle of the beloved Founding Father, political philosopher, amateur naturalist, and zealous bibliophile’s lesser-known but remarkable contributions to modern cuisine and food politics.

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