August 21, 2012

"Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée..."

"... How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America." A new book, by Thomas J. Craughwell, who provides this quickie version of the story in the American Spectator:
Eventually, James would speak French more fluently than Jefferson, who never mastered the language. James’ apprenticeship lasted three years, concluding in the spring and summer months of 1787, when he studied under the chef of the Prince of Condé. Initially, his lessons were held in the kitchen of the prince’s palace in Paris, but the final weeks of his training took place at the prince’s country chateau, Chantilly. Meals at Chantilly were sumptuous, and had been since the 17th century when Louis XIV came to dine. As a result, James’ training in the culinary arts under the prince’s chef meant that he was learning the most sophisticated techniques of French cuisine from an absolute master.

When he entered Condé’s kitchen, James joined an exclusive all-male world. In France, female cooks were acceptable in the homes of the bourgeoisie, but among the upper classes, a woman in the kitchen was un thinkable. La cuisine de femmes meant “home cooking,” a phrase which French chefs and French gourmands alike scorned. What the French up per crust desired -- and so did Thomas Jefferson, for that matter -- was haute cuisine: re fined, imaginative dishes served with style....

As word spread in Virginia of the remarkable meals that were being served at Monticello, Patrick Henry, one of Jefferson’s most bitter political opponents and a culinary chauvinist, denounced Jefferson as a man who had “abjured his native victuals!” 

27 comments:

traditionalguy said...

?Wasn't Hemmings his mistresses name too.

Were they brother and sister? And did she learn from the French the art of kissing during her stay in Paris with her master?

Lyssa said...

The husband and I love creme brulee - it's one of my favorite things to make and I have endless wonderful variations that make regular appearances in our kitchen. I can't imagine, however, trying to make it without modern ingredients and equipment. I wonder how different it really was.

Also, it's always sort of amazed me that slaves were trusted to prepare food for the family (and raise children).

Balfegor said...

Wasn't Hemmings his mistresses name too

Yes -- the article goes over that. James Hemings and Sally Hemings were both his father-in-law's bastards, his wife's half-siblings by blood.

wyo sis said...

It's hard to imagine how they made crime brûlée without a butane torch.

virgil xenophon said...

So we have Jefferson's love of creme brulee for the Louisiana Purchase, eh? We in New Orleans thank him..

LarsPorsena said...

Blogger wyo sis said...

It's hard to imagine how they made crime brûlée without a butane torch.
----------------------------

That makes two of us.

Mitch H. said...

Jefferson never mastered spoken French? He was our minister to France for a longish period, and was Secretary of State for a similar period in an era where the language of diplomacy was French! That seems rather unlikely.

It also doesn't match other testimony on the subject. Perhaps someone thought his accent barbarous or suchlike. The French are like that, after all.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Love this culinary history. I collect old cookbooks whenever I can. They are a fascinating look into how people lived and ate. Sometimes more sociology than cooking.

I have one from the late 1800's that spends quite a bit of time on how you should have your maids and servants dress according to whether they were serving you afternoon tea, morning breakfast or the ultra fancy uniform/dressing for a dinner party. Also how to lay out a 'proper' table and the extremely important etiquette of serving a ladies tea. The Hostess, herself, was responsible for the pouring and evidently this could make or break you socially. Woe to the aspiring Hostess who bungled this. She would become an outcast, about whom others would titter behind their hands.

Other cookbooks that are fun are those of the late 40's and early 50's. Especially those that also describe the "fun" games that should be expected at a backyard Luau or Western Style BBQ.

Great glimpses into how we used to be.

Dust Bunny Queen said...


It's hard to imagine how they made crime brûlée without a butane torch.


I would imagine a metal brazier full of red hot coals skimmed over the surface to melt the sugar. Kind of like an antique bed warmer.

Sorin said...

51They used a salamander, heated in the fire.

Shanna said...

0 reviews! Oh, I see it's not even out yet.

It actually has potential, but I'm not sure there is a books worth of material there.

Balfegor said...

RE: Mitch H:

Jefferson never mastered spoken French? He was our minister to France for a longish period, and was Secretary of State for a similar period in an era where the language of diplomacy was French! That seems rather unlikely.

I'm sure he could read and write decently well. But he was not particularly comfortable speaking English either:

He was congenitally shy about speaking in public, even while the Continental Congress debated and edited his prized declaration. John Adams said, ''During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.''

Quite easy to imaging that such a man would find learning to speak another language to a high degree of proficiency quite difficult.

Dave said...

I grew up in the 50s and 60s and we had creme brulee regularly. Mom was a great cook, but she never owned a butane torch. The oven's Broil setting did the trick very nicely.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

@ Sorin. Thanks for the correct info!

Paddy O said...

"It's hard to imagine how they made crime brûlée without a butane torch."

Jefferson's love for his country provided more than enough heat to caramelize.

Seeing Red said...

Jefferson loved the high life and died in debt. They still haven't decided who the kids father was.

...After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which put even free blacks at risk of slavecatchers, Eston Hemings and his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin to be further north, although they were legally free people of color. There he changed his name to "Eston H. Jefferson", and all the family adopted the surname. From then on the Jeffersons lived in the white community....

BarrySanders20 said...

Jefferson "abjured his native victuals" only in the culinary sense.

Kirk Parker said...

Lyssa,

"Also, it's always sort of amazed me that slaves were trusted to prepare food for the family"

Well, if this first-hand account is to believed, the fear was never very far from the slaveholders, though the women were much more ready to admit it.

ken in sc said...

Lyssa, On some plantations, slaves were allowed to carry small arms and do their own hunting for the kitchen. Some city slaves were allowed to hire themselves out in their free time and buy themselves. In South Carolina, there were over 200 black slave holders, and one major slave trader was black. In Louisiana there were a number of black plantation owners. It was truly a peculiar institution. It has been said that slavery was the only African custom widely adopted in America--except for the cooking I suppose.

edutcher said...

Send anybody to Frahnce and they get pretentious.

traditionalguy said...

?Wasn't Hemmings his mistresses name too.

Were they brother and sister? And did she learn from the French the art of kissing during her stay in Paris with her master?


Sally Hemmings was Martha Jefferson's half-sister.

Balfegor said...

Re:

"Also, it's always sort of amazed me that slaves were trusted to prepare food for the family"

It's an issue with basically all domestic slaves. Any domestic slave who wants to kill his master has any number of ways of achieving his end -- whether it's poison in the food, a knife in bed, strangling him in his bath, or pushing him down the stairs. Most people, even in oppressive circumstances, shrink from murder.

Methadras said...

Creme brulee with berries of all varieties and mint. Heaven.

Balfegor said...

re: ken in sc:

Lyssa, On some plantations, slaves were allowed to carry small arms and do their own hunting for the kitchen. Some city slaves were allowed to hire themselves out in their free time and buy themselves. In South Carolina, there were over 200 black slave holders, and one major slave trader was black. In Louisiana there were a number of black plantation owners. It was truly a peculiar institution.

Not really, though -- in the vast sweep of human history, slavery is the norm, and abolition is unusual. Really, I can only think of two abolition movements (the Usurper Wang Mang in Ancient China, and the Christian Evangelicals in the early 19th century -- the latter obviously a lot more successful than the former). I've heard people try to argue that the kind of multi-generational slavery we had in the US is unusual historically, but that isn't true either, since in many (even most) other systems, the children of slaves became slaves themselves, absent any manumission by the owner. In Korea, some of the lineages enslaved during the unification by the Kingdom of Shilla remained enslaved for over a thousand years.

Mitch H. said...

I'm sure he could read and write decently well. But he was not particularly comfortable speaking English either...

Yes, he was a stutterer. That didn't mean he wasn't proficient, just not particularly... verbally impressive. I find it impossible to believe that someone who writes fluently cannot be described as having "mastered" the language.

As for the whole Hemmings thing... I bought it when they first talked about it in the press a few years back, but I've been argued back to the position that it's just as likely that the Hemmings kids were the children of his brother as otherwise. After all, there were no legitimate children of Jefferson, and so they're comparing the descendants of the legitimate children of Jefferson's brother with... the descendants of what might be Jefferson's brother's illegitimate children.

There's a lot of cool ideas - like the once-possible poisoning of President Taylor - that just don't pan out in the end. Cool isn't synonymous with "true".

wyo sis said...

Mitch
I've heard the same thing. There is no Thomas Jefferson DNA to use for comparison. The timing is also Off for Sally Hemmings to have had Thomas Jefferson's children. But there were other Jefferson males who could be implicated. Also descendents of Sally's oldest and most likely to be Thomas Jefferson's son have no Jefferson DNA of any kind.
It would be a terrible thing to have history carry such a huge lie about an honorable person. I prefer to give Thomas Jefferson the benefit of the doubt based on his character in other matters.

Balfegor said...

Re: Mitch H:

Yes, he was a stutterer. That didn't mean he wasn't proficient, just not particularly... verbally impressive. I find it impossible to believe that someone who writes fluently cannot be described as having "mastered" the language.

Writing is very different from speaking, though. One has much more leisure to consider phrasing, etc. I know many people who write passable English but who have extraordinary difficulty comprehending spoken English, and whose pronunciation, when speaking, is almost impenetrable. I'd be surprised if Jefferson was that bad, just wouldn't be surprised to learn he wasn't fluent.

Furthermore, if our source about Jefferson's fluency is Jefferson himself, the man was a terrible braggart. He claimed, for example, to have mastered Spanish in 19 days, while crossing the Atlantic, with only the use of a grammar and a copy of Don Quixote. Yes, you can learn the basics of a language that way, and I'm sure travelling by boat was boring and left plenty of free time for drills, but it strains credulity. Adams' credulity, at least, and he knew Jefferson well. At most, Jefferson could learn to read and write from such materials -- speaking, unless he was conversing regularly with a Spanish crewmate (possible, but unremarked), learning conversation would be next to impossible.

William said...

Jefferson owned his wife's half sister. Isn't that a more heinous offense than screwing her? People don't seem to know where to put the decimal point in slavery. Slaves were owned. They were flogged. They were sold down river away from their families. Some slave owners had little slave children sleep at the foot of the bed to warm their feet. All of these acts strike me as far more monstrous than having sex with a slave. A strange kind of Puritanism.