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Jefferson’s winning recipe: Making French food an American dish

  • Published Sunday, Sep. 16, 2012, at 12:04 a.m.

“Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America” by Thomas J. Craughwell (Quirk Books, 233 pages, $19.95)

Step aside, Julia Child. Make room on that French culinary pedestal for a founding father and a slave.

Americans can thank Thomas Jefferson for the introduction of such favorites as french fries, creme brulee, and even that old standby mac and cheese. According to author Thomas Craughwell, these are among the dishes that Jefferson’s slave James Hemings mastered in his tenure as an apprentice to several French chefs during the mid- to late 1780s.

This was the time period when Jefferson joined Benjamin Franklin and John Adams as a commerce minister to France. A culinary revival was in process, “as French chefs moved away from the cookery of the Middle Ages and its reliance on generous dollops of spices and sugar to flavor food. Instead they turned to stocks and sauces to build layers of flavor, a method that remains the hallmark of classic French cuisine.”

Craughwell readily admits that he is drawn to off-beat stories, and he has written several books on American popular culture (“Stealing Lincoln’s Body”; “Urban Legends”) and Catholic history (“Saints Behaving Badly”). In his latest book, he provides plenty of documented historical detail to help the reader understand how French cooking offered something new, and why Jefferson, who appreciated good food and good wine, was just the man to help bring it to America.

The American colonists first encountered France’s culinary flair during the American Revolution, when France joined forces with them against the British. But the French approach to food had not been widely accepted by American cooks, who continued to hold to the style of cooking common in England. They emphasized simplicity and frugality, considering plain food a virtue and remaining suspicious and even hostile toward “fancified food.”

Trusted slave James Hemings was chosen to accompany Jefferson to Paris for the purpose of mastering the techniques and recipes of French chefs. Jefferson offered a deal to Hemings: Master the art of French cuisine; return to Monticello and teach the craft to another slave; and for this service, be granted your freedom. Hemings tasted freedom while in Paris, and for the first time in his life was essentially a free man because slavery was illegal in France.

Craughwell notes that according to the French Freedom Principle, “an enslaved person became free the moment he or she arrived in France.” Therefore, Hemings would have been able to claim his freedom immediately, but instead he kept his agreement with Jefferson, and was eventually freed in 1796.

Jefferson was, as the author points out, interested in just about everything. Craughwell serves up many varieties of historical details, perhaps at the expense of the main course of French cuisine. However, it is hard to fault an author for introducing tidbits about a person as fascinating as Jefferson, at once “a political philosopher, an amateur naturalist, an ardent gardener, a zealous bibliophile, and an inveterate tinkerer.”

Craughwell provides a light but tasty handling of Jefferson’s memorable experiences in pre-revolutionary France, and the effects on Jefferson’s thinking. One valuable conclusion was that “fine food and fine wine combined with lively conversation could serve a political purpose.”

This book reduces the heat on the simmering popularity of Julia Child in her efforts to make French food accessible to the American cook, and shifts some credit to an earlier gourmand and Francophile, Thomas Jefferson, and one of his slaves, James Hemings.

Lois Carr is a former librarian. She lives in Wichita.

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