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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’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.”
Jefferson dearly loved gadgets, as long as they served a practical purpose. Typical, in his dining room, was the custom of placing between each two guests a sort of dumb-waiter, a small wooden stand with shelves upon which servants placed the food and then were dismissed, so that the flow of conversation could continue without interruption and without the hazard of garbled repetition by “mute but not inattentive listeners,” as one writer put it. The inventive Jefferson had gone even further than this to avoid the constant opening and closing of doors by busy waiters. He had devised a set of circular shelves so placed in the wall that, as one of his guests said, “on touching a spring they turned into the room loaded with the dishes placed on them by the servants without the wall, and by the same process the removed dishes were conveyed out of the room.”
Lemaire was not only skillful in directing the relatively small dinners served every day, but coped with the vast numbers of people entertained during the Christmas holidays, and at the great receptions Mr. Jefferson gave every New Year’s Day and Fourth of July. Several days before such receptions the maître d’hôtel began laying in the dozens of eggs and quantities of butter required by Julien “ pour commencer le petit four ” which would be offered with the wine punch and lemonade. Extra doorkeepers and cleaning men were hired; Lemaire even paid a man to turn the ice cream freezer on the Fourth of July. Laundresses were still at work a week or two later. And to the Marine Band, which played on both occasions, Jefferson contributed thirty dollars.