- Historic Sites
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
Dairymen named variously Belt, Maul, Barrows, and Miller delivered milk and cream to the door. Dairy products were dear, milk being nine cents a quart, best-quality butter thirty cents a pound. Eggs cost about t\veirty cents a dozen. Seasonable and delightful local fruits of every description were cheap and abundant, but Lemaire paid eighty-five cents a dozen for oranges. Even pineapples were available, but expensive. As for breadstuff’s, no staff of servants could produce all that was needed from the ovens of the President’s House. A baker named Peter Miller delivered about a dozen loaves of bread a day. His bills averaged about fifty dollars a month, a large loaf in 1807 costing twelve and a half cents.
The Day Book’s entries begin on January 12, 1806, probably as the continuation of an earlier ledger, and conclude when the last quart of milk had been delivered and paid for on the tenth day of March, 1809 —the very day before James and Dolley Madison moved into the executive mansion. The book yields its secrets with some difficulty, for Lemaire kept it scrupulously but in doubtfully spelled, eighteenth-century French. (“I enclose you Lemaire’s receipts,” Jefferson wrote in one letter to his daughter. “The orthography will be puzzling and amusing but the receipts are valuable.”)
Lemaire had come into Jefferson’s service during his first administration, after the President had suffered some of the vexations common to large households in securing an able and honest staff. Jefferson had been left a widower with two daughters early in life, and the management of household as well as plantation affairs had fallen upon him. With his characteristic versatility and attention to detail, he undertook the personal supervision of every aspect of his ménage. Shortly before his first inauguration he had appealed to “Citizen” La Tombe, one of his French acquaintances in Philadelphia: … I find great difficulty in composing my household … You know the importance of a good maitre d’hotel in a large house and the impossibility of finding one among the natives of our country. I have imagined that such a person might be found, perhaps, among the French of Philadelphia … Honesty and skill in making the dessert are indispensable qualifications, that he should be good humoured and of a steady, discreet disposition is also important. If there be such a one within the compass of your knowledge will you have the goodness to engage him to come to me immediately? … I have a good cook, but it is pour l’office [for general management] & to take charge of the family that I am distressed.
Jefferson’s search resulted at first in the employment of a maître d’h’f4tel named Joseph Rapin—or Rapine, as some tradesmen inscribed their bills to him. Problems of staff, however, were by no means over. “The good cook” mentioned to La Tombe, perhaps disliking Rapin, gave notice promptly. Jefferson sought help from still another acquaintance, authorizing him to “go as high as twenty-eight dollars” a month, even though he understood that “twenty dollars a month is what is given to the best French cook.”
Jefferson’s preference for French cooking was nothing new. It stemmed from his residence of over five years in France as our minister plenipotentiary. There he experienced for the first time the refinements of this exotic art and set about almost at once to learn the secrets of superb cuisine by securing “receipts” from his cook and copying them in his own hand, to be carried back to the United States. While it was a revelation to him that the scope of delectable viands was far wider than the restricted diet of his Virginia upbringing, he also felt it important to learn how to deal with familiar ingredients in a way that heightened aroma and gave subtle, distinctive flavor. Furthermore, he sent his young slave and body servant, James Hemings, who had accompanied him from Monticello, to be trained as a cook by the owner of a Parisian dining establishment. James’ attainments proved so satisfactory that it was with distinct regret that Jefferson, after his return to the United States, executed the following paper: Having been at great expence in having James Hemings taught the art of cookery, disiring [sic] to befriend him, and to require from him as little in return as possible, I do hereby promise & declare, that if the said James shall go with me to Monticello in the course of the ensuing winter, when I go to reside there myself, and shall there continue until he shall have taught such person as I shall place under him for the purpose to be a good cook, this previous condition being performed, he shall be thereupon made free, and I will thereupon execute all proper instruments to make him free. Given under my hand and seal in the county of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania this i5th. day of September one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.
James, to meet these conditions, took as pupil his younger brother, Peter, and spent almost two and a half years teaching him the intricacies of French cooking. This accomplished, and with Jefferson’s emancipation paper and thirty dollars in his pocket, James quit Monticello forever to pursue his vocation elsewhere.