Are you one of the many who believe that the wondrous and beloved Julia Child was the first notable person responsible for introducing the joys of French cuisine to America? However much she popularized it, Julia was not the first. Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States was actually a founding foodie. He was the one responsible for bringing everything from Champagne to Crème brûlée to the new republic. And, as much of a lover of agriculture and food as Jefferson was, he had some help – from his slave James Hemings.
Here’s the short version of an intriguing story. The two struck a deal. If Hemings would go to France to apprentice under the best French chefs of the day, learn the techniques and dishes then return to America and teach a fellow slave the wonders of French culinary tradition, Jefferson would grant Hemings his freedom. Never mind that France at the time prohibited slavery. A deal is a deal.
Hemings agreed, and that’s just what happened. Jefferson, a devoted student of agriculture and brought many new and exciting ingredients back to cultivate at his estate, Monticello. And Hemings dutifully apprenticed with the best chefs in Paris and returned to teach his brother Peter the art of French cuisine, ultimately earning his freedom. Jefferson
This fascinating and unique partnership is the subject of a fascinating book called Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée by Thomas J. Craughwell. So while much is appreciated about founding foodie Jefferson’s love of wine, his legacy also includes being the original proponent of French cuisine in the United States. So feel free to toast him with some Champagne, the bubbly beverage he served at nearly every dinner he hosted. Sounds like our kind of dinner parties!
Only a few of the original recipes survive, but because we know you’re dying to see one, we’ve reproduced James Hemings’ recipe for “Snow Eggs,” a French dessert of meringue floating on crème anglaise here for your enjoyment.
Snow Eggs Recipe
Take 10 eggs, separate the yolks from the whites and beat the whites as you do for the savoy cake, till you can turn the vessel bottom upward without their leaving it; when they are well beaten, put in 2 spoonfuls of powdered sugar and a little orange flower water or rose water if you prefer it. Put a pint of milk in a saucepan with 6 oz sugar and orange flower or rose water; when your milk boils, take the whites, spoonful by spoonful and do them in the boiling milk; when sufficiently poached, take them out and lay them on a sieve. Take out a part of the milk, according to the thickness you wish to give the custard. Beat up the yolks and stir them in the remainder; as soon as it thickens, take the mixture from the fire; strain it through a sieve; dish up your whites and pour the custard over them. A little wine stirred in is a great improvement.
— James, cook at Monticello
THE QUICK BITE: Thomas Jefferson is a founding foodie who, together with his slave James Hemings, introduced French cuisine to America.