And we thought we owed Julia Child a word of thanks for bringing creme brulee and champagne to American palates.
According to author Thomas J. Craughwell and his meticulously researched book, “Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America,” it was Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s who was responsible for such then-exotic delights.
Craughwell weaves the surprising and little-known story of how Jefferson promised and later granted freedom — albeit belatedly — to Hemings in exchange for his culinary training in France and chef services at home in Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia. But it also teaches us about 18th-century American eating habits, an equally fascinating subject to even the most casual of foodies.
Despite the ocean, lakes and rivers crowded with cod and bass, clams and mussels, even lobster — none of this was deemed palatable to the early colonial settlers. Instead, they boiled their meat and game, overcooked their vegetables and heavily sweetened their desserts.
Craughwell also illuminates Jefferson, the farmer. He developed more efficient ways to raise crops, increase harvests and limit pests. He tried endless varieties of fruits, nuts and wines, and experimented with European crops that he thought might thrive in the U.S., including rice, which he smuggled illegally out of Italy.
He also shares everything he learned about Hemings, a slave 20 years Jefferson’s junior, who served as his chef for more than a decade and whose sister, Sally, may have been the mother of several of their owner’s children.
And, remarkably, the book includes several of Hemings’ recipes — eight written in his own hand have survived and nearly 150 others were passed down by Jefferson or his granddaughters. They include ice cream, macaroni and cheese and, of course, creme brulee.