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Author offers a fresh perspective on Thomas Jefferson

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, at 8:01 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, at 7:36 a.m.

Does the world need another book on Thomas Jefferson? Oh, sure, why not?

Craughwell’s focus is on the young man Jefferson took with him as part of his entourage in 1784 to learn to cook in the French style.

His name was James Hemings. He was a slave. He was the older brother to the better known Sally Hemings.

Craughwell is faced with a basic problem in telling James’ story in that there simply isn’t a great deal of written material on him. What little there is, is well used.

Jefferson faced several problems with bring James to France. First of all was that in France, Hemings would be considered free.

“Living in Paris was a unique experience for James, too: for the first time in his life, he was essentially a free man. Back home, all Virginians assumed that any black person they encountered was a slave. However, slavery was unknown in France; more to the point, it was illegal. So, Parisians who saw black men or women walking through their city may have thought of them as exotic, but never as slaves.”

So, Jefferson provided Hemings with a monthly salary as well as apprenticing him to a restaurateur and caterer named Combeaux to learn to cook. Combeaux was given 150 francs to “teach Hemings the art of French cuisine.”

Later, Hemings went on to work in the Prince of Conde’s kitchen learning the techniques of cooking for the aristocracy.

Most of “Crème Brulee” is dominated by Thomas Jefferson and his stay in France. He held many parties, tested wines, acquired a taste for champagne and wines to take home to his estate Monticello. He brought one of his daughters with him, and sent for the other one who arrived with James’ sister, Sally.

This is all set in the fragile years leading up to the storming of the Bastille and the destruction of the aristocracy in the French revolution.

“On the surface, the hierarchy of French society must have seemed strong and permanent to these visitors from America, but that monolithic appearance was a façade. In fact, the ancient regime was teetering on the edge of an abyss. In a few short years, the French Revolution would bring down the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Catholic Church.”

Three years before the revolution erupts, in 1789, Jefferson, his family, James and Sally Hemings returned to America. Jefferson brought an entire kitchen’s worth of gear with him from utensils to hundreds of bottles of wine. James Hemings would serve as Jefferson’s chef until 1793 when Jefferson drew up a contract saying that if Hemings will train a new man in the art of French cooking, then Jefferson will set James free.

Two years later, in 1796, after training his younger brother, Peter, in the art, James Hemings is emancipated and leaves Monticello. He returns in 1801 for a while but goes to Baltimore where, tragically, he commits suicide at 36.

While “none of the original cookbooks from Monticello have survived,” some of Hemings’ and Jefferson’s recipes were transcribed by Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia Randolph Trist in the 19th century. Craughwell reproduces several pages of written recipes from the Library of Congress archives.

The best one is on the back cover — a recipe for burnt cream or Crème Brulee.

———

“Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee,” by Thomas J. Craughwell; Quirk Books, Philadelphia ($24.95, 233 pages)

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