Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America
Thomas J. Craughwell
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This culinary biography recounts the 1784 deal that Thomas Jefferson struck with his slaves, James Hemings. The founding father was traveling to Paris and wanted to bring James along “for a particular purpose”— to master the art of French cooking. In exchange for James’s cooperation, Jefferson would grant his freedom.
Thus began one of the strangest partnerships in United States history. As Hemings apprenticed under master French chefs, Jefferson studied the cultivation of French crops (especially grapes for winemaking) so the might be replicated in American agriculture. The two men returned home with such marvels as pasta, French fries, Champagne, macaroni and cheese, crème brûlée, and a host of other treats. This narrative history tells the story of their remarkable adventure—and even includes a few of their favorite recipes!
Roze and Pontaille were just what the doctor ordered.21 Before Roze and Pontaille’s establishment, there were no restaurants as we know them today, only inns, taverns, or a cook-caterer’s shop where the offerings were limited, the cooking indifferent, and the service restricted to specific hours of the day. Joachim Nemeitz, a German gourmand who traveled to Paris in the early 1700s, was unimpressed by the cuisine available in these places. Even more appalling was the public table, a group meal
much success. Rumors circulated among peasants that it was poisonous and caused tuberculosis, scrofula, syphilis, and even leprosy. But, ultimately, Europe needed the potato. Unpredictable crop failures and devastating wars that tore the continent apart often caused the starvation of tens of thousands. In the aftermath of the Thirty Years War (1618–48), Europeans looked for crops that would feed the peasants no matter how poor the grain harvest might be. They discovered that the potato was the
puppies before they sailed.37 Shortly after midnight on October 8, the Channel being calm at last, Jefferson’s ship sailed for Cowes on the Isle of Wight, where the passengers would change to an ocean-going vessel. While the group was waiting for the ship to sail, the English newspapers reported that a mob had marched on Versailles and forced the entire royal family to move to Paris. Jefferson dismissed the reports as alarmist, exaggerated, and untrustworthy—he expected a smooth transition from
accusations as a speech, which his political ally, Representative William Branch Giles, delivered in the House of Representatives on February 27, 1793. Jefferson and his friends assumed Hamilton would be so ashamed that he would resign from office. Instead, two days later, Hamilton published a reply exposing the charges against him as deliberately invented and completely false.11 It was Jefferson who resigned. In the fall of 1793, he left Philadelphia and headed home to Monticello. James Hemings
Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 205. 4. Aresty, Exquisite Table, 43–44. 5. Wheaton, Savoring the Past, 209. 6. Ibid., 224–25. 7. Ibid., 232. 8. Aresty, Exquisite Table, 49–50. 9. Ibid., 51–52. 10. Wheaton, Savoring the Past, 201–2. 11. Aresty, Exquisite Table, 52–53, 55. 12. Ibid., 59–60. 13. Ibid., 60–61. 14. Ibid., 64. 15. Ibid., 65. 16. Wheaton, Savoring the Past, 213. 17. Cited in ibid. 18. Cited in