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Thomas Jefferson Gourmel’
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
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.
For the executive mansion, Jefferson in due time secured—for twenty-five dollars a month—an excellent French cook, Honoré Julien, who became a valued friend of the President’s; and a staff of nine other persons was organized. Rapin, the maître d’h’f4tel, however, remained only through the summer of 1801. Succeeding him, and directing the entire staff during Jefferson’s two administrations, was the superbly trained and admirable Etienne Lemaire. He received a monthly salary of thirty dollars. Servants’ wages, including Lemaire’s, totalled $148 per month.
The constant and lavish entertaining required enormous quantities of immaculate table linen—“napery and diapers” Jefferson called it—and Lemaire very frequently hired an extra laundress at about forty-five cents a day; but Biddy Boyle was the regular washerwoman at seven dollars a month. The only servant from Monticello was Edy, a Negro girl, seventeen years old in 1804, whom Jefferson had brought to Washington to learn French cookery from Julien. On the whole the President had preferred the considerable expense of hiring a staff in Washington to assembling one from among his own slaves. In the fall of 1806 Fanny Bowles, another slave from Monticello and Edy’s sisterin-law, joined Edy in learning French cuisine. Each of these young women was paid two dollars per month. When Jefferson retired to Monticello they became his cooks there.
The President’s salary of $25,000, seemingly magnificent for the times, was expected to cover not only openhanded hospitality to the citizenry, but upkeep, incidental repairs, and occasional furniture for the house; livery and food for the servants; a carriage and feed for the horses. No expense account in the modern sense existed.