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America’s First Connoisseur

Among his many claims to distinction, Thomas Jefferson can be regarded as America’s first connoisseur. The term and the concept emerged among the philosophes of eighteenth-century Paris, where Jefferson lived between 1784 and 1789. As minister to France he gorged on French culture. In five years, he bought more than sixty oil paintings, and many more objets d’art. He attended countless operas, plays, recitals, and masquerade balls. He researched the latest discoveries in botany, zoology and horticulture, and read inveterately—poetry, history, philosophy. In every inch of Paris he found something to stir his senses and cultivate his expertise. “Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture, sculpture, painting, music,” he wrote a friend back in America, “I should want words.”

Ultimately, he poured all these influences into Monticello, the plantation he inherited from his father, which Jefferson redesigned into a palace of his own refined tastes. More than in its domed ceilings, its gardens, or its galleries, it was in Monticello’s dining room that Jefferson the connoisseur reigned. Here, he shared with his guests recipes, produce, and ideas that continue to have a sizable effect on how and what Americans eat.

In keeping with his republican ideals, Jefferson eschewed lavish banquets in favor of small, informal dinners where conversation flowed as freely as the Château Haut-Brion. According to his own account, the famous dinner table bargain of June 1790 was just such an event. Preparing the menu for the “room where it happened” that night was James Hemings, arguably the most accomplished chef in the United States. He was Jefferson’s trusted protégé, his brother-in-law—and his slave.

For nine years in Paris, New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia, it was Hemings who produced the sophisticated haute cuisine dishes with a demotic, Southern twist that we now think of as emblematically Jeffersonian: capon stuffed with Virginia ham; indulgent vanilla ice cream encased in delicate choux pastry; beef stew served in a French bouillon. And it was he who taught his fellow slaves at Monticello everything he knew about food, transmitting his influence down the generations, onto the tables of Virginia’s social elite.

Hemings’s talents had been nurtured by Jefferson, who took him to France and gave him a first-rate culinary education from some of Europe’s most illustrious chefs. Yet, every moment he spent in Jefferson’s kitchens, he did so in servitude. His biography appears to us only in snatched glimpses. We know little about his private life and his interior existence, beyond what he expressed through cooking. But his story exemplifies the strange paradoxes that have come to define the public reputation of Thomas Jefferson, a man who, in turn, exemplifies the strange paradoxes of his age.

Read entire article at Paris Review