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Thomas Jefferson Gourmet
Back from France with an epicure’s knowledge of haute cuisine , our third President served the most lavish dinners in White House history
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
I dined a large company once or twice a week, Jefferson dined a dozen every day,” remarked the frugal New Englander John Adams in recalling early hospitality in the “President’s House” in Washington. “I held levees once a week. Jefferson’s whole eight years was a levee.” Other guests than Adams also left letters and memoirs recalling Jefferson’s dinner parties, the most elegant and agreeable they had ever known. And Thomas Jefferson himself recorded in his account books enormous monthly expenditures for food and for choice wines.
I dined a large company once or twice a week, Jefferson dined a dozen every day,” remarked the frugal New Englander John Adams in recalling early hospitality in the “President’s House” in Washington. “I held levees once a week. Jefferson’s whole eight years was a levee.” Other guests than Adams also left letters and memoirs recalling Jefferson’s dinner parties, the most elegant and agreeable they had ever known. And Thomas Jefferson himself recorded in his account books enormous monthly expenditures for food and for choice wines. But what did President Jefferson actually serve his guests? What would have been a typical menu at a White House dinner in 1806? What did it cost? Who were the staff who prepared it?
Precise answers to these questions lie in an extraordinary, sheepskin-covered Day Book kept by Jefferson’s maître d’h’f4tel, Monsieur Etienne Lemaire, during the last three years of his master’s administration. Here Lemaire recorded, in French, his daily marketing list and what his purchases cost. The book reveals what foods were abundant and cheap in the Washington of 1806–9; what meats and vegetables Jefferson preferred. It also discloses the cost of bread and milk, and what items on our tables today were available to an affluent household on the eastern seaboard 150 years ago. It even gives the wages of a laundress or “cleaning lady.”
In at least one category—wild fowl—there was wider choice than one coidd dream of today. One could shoot his own game or, like Etienne Lemaire, find it readily available in the public market. At the President’s House, therefore, astonishing quantities oi fowl were consumed, both wild and domestic. Pheasants by the pair, partridges by the half dozen, and wild pigeons by the dozen came regularly to table. Common birds were eaten as a matter of course. Canvasback ducks so abounded on the Potomac that they were a commonplace in Georgetown, where Lemaire did his marketing. The ducks were said to owe their excellent flavor to the seed of a particular grass, wild celery, found only along the Potomac and Susqueharma rivers. Even Sir Augustus Foster, a fastidious British diplomat of the time, forgot his usual disdain for things American and pronounced these wild ducks superior to any he had tasted in Europe. Jefferson, who enjoyed most birds, was particularly fond of guinea fowl.
Domestic and wild turkeys appeared at the President’s table once or twice weekly, the leg of the wild turkey being regarded as especially fine. Sometimes a pair of turkeys was served in a “cold pastry,” or a smaller fowl was cooked inside a larger one for a “preserve of fowle.” In the early iSoo’s breakfast was no sketchy affair, but a substantial meal designed to sustain one for many hours. So it was not unusual for the French cook to bake four pigeons or squabs in a flaky crust for the President’s breakfast. Beef tongue was also an early-morning favorite.
Lemaire purchased venison when it was available, but even as early as 1800 it was considered a delicacy in the East, and the most expensive meat one could buy. It was thirteen pence, or cents, the pound, and when he could get it, Lemaire usually purchased about thirty-five pounds. Squirrel and rabbit, nine pence the pound, were the basis for tasty ragouts. Although the President ate very little pork, a suckling pig was frequently roasted on the turnspit in the great fireplace and served to guests.
Fresh fish were relatively cheap. Shoals of perch in nearby Tiber Creek were so thick that a fisherman could gather a fine mess by firing a shotgun into them. Enormous sturgeon, simply caught by hook and line at the little falls of the Potomac, a short distance above Georgetown, found their way to market, where Lemaire frequent bought a “morceau”—no doubt a large chunk—for a quarter. Rockfish weighing as much as fifty to seventy pounds were also brought to market from the Potomac. Although quantities of crawfish and lampreys were in the river for the taking, few Americans thought them fit to eat. Lemaire, however, occasionally bought a dozen or so crabs for a penny or two apiece. Gallons of oysters from Chesapeake Bay—at ninety cents a gallon—fresh and delicious then as now, were usually marinated or baked in a pie. And Lemaire was careful to note on Friday, December 16, 1808, that he had purchased, in addition to the usual turkey and “birds,” a do/en little fish for the Roman Catholics who dined with the President.