- 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
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.
Jefferson assiduously recorded all his varied financial transactions, whether they involved considerable sums of money, or merely fifty cents to a young grandson, or five or ten dollars in charity to one of the constant callers at the President’s House. Lemaire for his part was just as scrupulous in listing, in his large, redlabelled Day Book, every pound of meat purchased, every saddle of venison, every box of currants “ pour de la Jellé .” One hundred and fourteen pages are filled for the period 1806–9. His records also include transportation charges for wine and water; coal, wood, and “cyder” (one of Jefferson’s favorite beverages); incidental expenses for the servants; and other disbursements which the maître d’h’f4tel of an important house naturally undertook. No cellar book seems to have been needed, for Jefferson personally ordered and paid for the finest wines from abroad, and noted the rate of their consumption in his own account books. Despite a famous cellar, which, incidentally, the President had been obliged to have excavated beneath an outbuilding since there was no vault cool enough in the original building, Jefferson was temperate in his use of wine. Contemporaries observed that he was fond of wine and water, but Isaac, an old Monticello slave, put it picturesquely when he commented that he had never seen his master “disguised in drink.”
At the end of each week Lemaire handed the Day Book to the President, who studied the sixty to eighty entries, checked the addition, and translated the Virginia currency of pounds, shillings, and pence (which Lemaire used in shopping) into dollars and cents. On rare occasions Jefferson found, and in his neat, completely legible handwriting corrected, a small error. One such correction involved four pairs of ducks; in making another, Jefferson noted gravely that nightgowns for Edy’s infants had been “twice charged.”
At month’s end, after Lemaire had added the incidental expenses to table expenses, Jefferson recorded in the Day Book how his debts for hospitality stood, and then issued to Lemaire an order on the Bank of the United States for between $500 and $600. Even so, this did not take into account delicacies sent from Monticello, or European foods which Jefferson personally ordered and which were arriving steadily from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond. Many guests were introduced at the President’s House to macaroni and vermicelli, anchovies, olive oil, vanilla, citron, Parmesan cheese, European nuts and figs. The ices and creams which Julien and Lemaire produced were also new and sensational to most of the company.
Lemaire shopped every day that Jefferson was in residence, including Christmas and New Year’s. Each day, at the conclusion of his early-morning trip by wagon to Georgetown, the nearest market, he set down his purchases line by line in his hieh, slanting, often phonetically written French. A list of nineteen items for January 12, 1806, and the prices he had paid for them opened his accounts in his new Day Book. Beef, as usual at the beginning of a week’s shopping, topped the list, with one hundred and twenty pounds purchased at nine cents a pound. Ninety pounds of mutton at the same price had also been bought. Only thirty-five pounds of veal were on the list, but the price per pound was higher: eleven and a quarter cents. Pork cost the same as beef and mutton. Three turkeys, at about a dollar apiece, had been purchased that day, and eighteen partridges. Also, ten pounds of lard, eight pounds of butter, a pig’s head, and two salt tongues. A curious item, “six brooms for the roof,” suggests that the roof of the President’s House was heavily covered with snow and needed sweeping.