We all know the name and his impeccable political credentials (he was an American Founding Father and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence; he was the third President of the United States). But Thomas Jefferson lived a full life of controversy outside the political arena.
Jefferson served as a diplomat, stationed in Paris from August 1784 to September 1789. He didn’t arrive alone but took with him his eldest daughter (his wife having recently died) and his slave James Hemings. Jefferson wanted the 19-year-old Hemings to be trained in French cooking and he apprenticed James to Chef Combeaux who was a local caterer.
Well, that seems benevolent but one adds another dimension to the adventure when one realises that James Hemings was in fact related to Jefferson’s wife Martha. His father-in-law, John Wayles, was his slave’s father, making James Jefferson’s half-brother-in-law. Jefferson inherited the whole Hemings family including James’ younger sister Sally, with whom Jefferson is said to have had at least one child.
Thomas Jefferson loved the good things in life and was struck by the opulence of Paris. He admired the fine architecture and felt that his celebrated home, Monticello, (about 11,000 square feet) would have been considered more of an outbuilding by French aristocratic standards. He evidently wanted to return to the US with European style and to be able to dine in an impressive manner.
James must also have been impressed with France and quite envious of its small black population. They were all free, as slavery did not exist in that country. One wonders why he did not make a run for it as there would have been little that Jefferson could have done to retrieve his ‘property’. But it’s possible that James also wanted to continue his training, as Jefferson promised Hemings his freedom if he would learn about French cuisine and if he would pass that knowledge on to others at Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée isn’t a book of archaic French recipes, although they are mentioned. This is a fascinating snapshot of American social attitudes in that post-independence era, and of culinary customs of the French court and Parisians in general. It’s an enthralling read and will be enjoyed by food lovers as well as social historians.
Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée – How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America
Author: Thomas J. Craughwell
Published by: Quirk Books
Food history book review by Chrissie Walker © 2018