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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
The President was so fond of vegetables and so earnestly interested in their cultivation that he found time to keep a record of the earliest and latest appearance of each vegetable in the market during his eight years in Washington. His tabulation included thirty-seven varieties, indicating the wide choice available in that early day. In addition to the more usual kinds, including peas, his favorite, the list shows that the President was accustomed to mushrooms, broccoli, endive, and artichokes—legumes whose popularity in modern American households is comparatively recent.
The vegetables which Lemaire selected on January 12, 1806, were spinach, cabbage, and “sellerie.” Two gallons of chestnuts, also bought that day, could be combined with the poultry or served as a savory side dish. With the other items on the list—eggs, oranges, and lemon extract (Lemaire called it “ Lesance de Citron ”)—a. chef could deal with an elaborate dessert, creating from his stores the appropriate sauce.
Lemaire’s devotion to duty was by no means unnoticed by the guests who frequented his table. One of them recalled that Jefferson’s “maître d’hôtel had served in some of the first families abroad, and understood his business to perfection … never before had such dinners been given in the President’s House, nor such a variety of the finest and most costly wines … the absence of splendour, ornament and profusion was more than compensated by the neatness, order and elegant sufficiency that pervaded the whole establishment.” Edmund Bacon, Jefferson’s overseer at Monticello, occasionally visited Washington; he remembered Lemaire as “a very smart man … well educated, and as much of a gentleman in his appearance as any man. … [He] told me that it often took fifty dollars to pay for what marketing they would use in a day. Mr. Jefferson’s salary did not support him while he was President.” Bacon also provided a footnote on the President’s personal habits at table: “He was never a great eater, but what he did eat he wanted to be very choice.”
It must be admitted that not all of Jefferson’s guests were pleased with the dishes, familiar or newfangled, set before them. One New Englander complained that fried eggs and fried beef were served at the same dinner with beef, turkey, and ducks, although he admitted grudgingly his pleasure at tasting “the new foreign dish, macaroni.” A story that went the rounds of Washington concerned a member of Congress who was also a butcher. One day at dinner at the executive mansion, so the incident was reported, “observing a leg of mutton of a miserably lean description, he could not help forgetting the legislator for a few moments, expressing the feelings of his profession and exclaiming that at his stall no such leg of mutton should ever have found a place.” And Patrick Henry, in a political speech, denounced Jefferson as one who had “abjured his native victuals.”
Usually, however, Jefferson’s guests were enthusiastic. The dinners which called forth their praise were prepared in an enormous vaulted kitchen directly below the main entrance, on the north side of the ground floor. There was a stone fireplace at each end. Here were placed the long-handled skillets, cranes for heavy pots, turnspits for which Lemaire regularly bought oil, and the great roasting oven as well as a small oven for pastry.
Ordinarily, Jefferson’s dinners were given in a dining room on the south front, and the company numbered fourteen. The hour for dining was four o’clock; the style was easy and informal. Rules of precedence were abolished, titles ignored. The host, a tall, lean man of distinction and sensitivity, in his early sixties, would typically be clothed in a neat though casual manner, wearing twilled corduroy breeches, scarlet embroidered waistcoat under a more somberly colored coat, and satinette shoes comfortably worn—less costly and splendid apparel than the blue livery coats, trimmed with silver lace, worn by his servants. While Congress was in session Jefferson entertained representatives and senators, diplomats, distinguished travellers, men of science; he was interested in everyone. When Congress recessed and he had not yet left for Monticello, his guests included plain citizens of every rank as well as writers, explorers, and Indian chiefs. His daughter Martha and other ladies were occasionally in the company.
Although the large corner dining room of the President’s House was more stately—its furnishings including, according to Jefferson’s own inventory, “an elegant Brussels carpet”—he preferred the pleasant south room known today as the Green Room. It was furnished with an “elegant side board with pedestals and urn knife cases, an extra large Mahogany Dining Table in six pieces, a Small dining Table in three parts, a large Mahogany Square Table, two Glass Cases to contain the Silver and plated ware, an Oval breakfast Table, and fifteen chairs, black and gold.”