In 1784, when Thomas Jefferson was leaving for Paris to serve as ambassador to France, he offered his slave, 19-year-old James Hemings, his freedom if he would travel with him and master the art of French cuisine. The two men journeyed to Paris where James Hemings was apprenticed under several master chefs for three years. Following his apprenticeship, Hemings became chef de cuisine in Jefferson’s house in Paris. During the four years Jefferson lived in Paris, he devoted himself to the intricacies of French cooking and French wines. He also studied French agriculture, especially French grapes for winemaking, and how it might be replicated in American agriculture.
Jefferson copied the recipes from his French kitchen and returned to the United States as perhaps the most celebrated epicure and connoisseur in the art of fine cuisine and wine of his day. The most exceptional wines were imported from France, Spain, and Italy, and Jefferson would search local markets for the finest and freshest of produce. The best of delicacies of two continents now made their appearance on his table. James Hemings remained at Monticello as a paid servant and later trained a chef as his replacement. He left Monticello in 1796 with his freedom papers.
Jefferson’s granddaughter, Virginia Randolph, copied all the recipes Jefferson brought back from France, as well as additional ones from various cooks and stewards who worked for Jefferson at Monticello, Poplar Forest, and the White House. The handwritten cookbook was handed down from one generation to the next until the 1930s. At that time Fanny M. Burke, the great-great-granddaughter of Jefferson, presented the book to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. The Foundation later gave noted historian Marie Kimball permission to update and prepare it for publication.
The book, entitled Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book, is available to purchase. I recently saw a used copy on eBay for eight dollars. Lately, it has been fashionable for individuals and restaurants to serve “Dinner with Jefferson,” and to create the whole menu from Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book!