- 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
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.
During Christmas holidays, dinners of noble proportions were served to guests, and fat turkey— gros dindon —and nuts were especially purchased for “the family,” as Jefferson called his servants. Regular fare for the servants, if somewhat plainer, was of the same quality as that for guests, and Lemaire kept no separate ledger for servants’ food. When Jefferson was at Monticello, Lemaire, in Washington, continued to purchase large quantities of meat, bu-tter, and eggs for the ten or eleven members of the staff; and upon his return, Jefferson was able to figure their food cost at about thirty-three dollars per week. Each ate ten pounds of meat per week, he estimated, “besides fish.” The cost of food for a servant per day was therefore almost as great as that for a guest, with the important difference that a guest also consumed expensive wines. Body servants of guests, however, got special treatment. When Melli Melli, the Tunisian ambassador, very grand in his gold-embroidered waistcoat and white turban, dined with Jefferson on January 14, 1806, shortly after negotiations had closed the Tripolitan War, Lemaire noted that he had purchased ”¼ of a flask for the negro of the Ambassador of Algeria.”
In addition to closely supervising the cuisine, Lemaire periodically directed strenuous programs of cleaning and painting. The standard workman’s wage was seventy-five cents a day, and for women, forty-five cents. All the laborers received “nourishment,” but those who worked by the week also expected whiskey, which cost sixty cents a gallon. Every fall, before the President had returned from Monticello, the windows of the mansion were cleaned, and furniture was polished until it gleamed; a laundress put in her appearance with great stacks of clean linen, including special linen for the “visitor’s chamber.” Wood and charcoal were carried in; chimneys were cleaned by the chimney sweep; the ham saw was sharpened; aprons and tea towels were purchased for Julien and his staff. Tea, Virginia hams, muscovado white sugar by the barrel, and boxes of loaf sugar, personally ordered and paid for by Jefferson, began to arrive. Sometimes Lemaire bought coffee, at thirty-three cents a pound.
The young apprentice cooks looked to Lemaire for their shoes and clothing, and it was he who gave the midwife her three dollars when their children were born, and then paid for two weeks of nursing care for mother and child. One infant born to Fanny Bowles was frail, and contracted whooping cough. Jefferson himself took time from his official duties to write a note to a lady in Washington requesting her “to send the receipt for a remedy,” which he had heard her say had proved effectual. Nevertheless, the child died. Pathetic little funeral expenses for the slave child were duly recorded by Lemaire in his Day Book. A coffin, delivered together with a load of wood by a Mr. Lenox, cost $2.25; the grave digger’s charge was $1.35; the hearse—“ la voitur ”—-was hired for $2.75 for the cold, sad trip to the burying ground.