October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
Back from France with an epicure’s knowledge of haute cuisine , our third President served the most lavish dinners in White House history
I dined a large company once or twice a week, Jefferson dined a dozen every day,” remarked the frugal New Englander John Adams in recalling early hospitality in the “President’s House” in Washington. “I held levees once a week. Jefferson’s whole eight years was a levee.” Other guests than Adams also left letters and memoirs recalling Jefferson’s dinner parties, the most elegant and agreeable they had ever known. And Thomas Jefferson himself recorded in his account books enormous monthly expenditures for food and for choice wines.
I dined a large company once or twice a week, Jefferson dined a dozen every day,” remarked the frugal New Englander John Adams in recalling early hospitality in the “President’s House” in Washington. “I held levees once a week. Jefferson’s whole eight years was a levee.” Other guests than Adams also left letters and memoirs recalling Jefferson’s dinner parties, the most elegant and agreeable they had ever known. And Thomas Jefferson himself recorded in his account books enormous monthly expenditures for food and for choice wines. But what did President Jefferson actually serve his guests? What would have been a typical menu at a White House dinner in 1806? What did it cost? Who were the staff who prepared it?
Precise answers to these questions lie in an extraordinary, sheepskin-covered Day Book kept by Jefferson’s maître d’h’f4tel, Monsieur Etienne Lemaire, during the last three years of his master’s administration. Here Lemaire recorded, in French, his daily marketing list and what his purchases cost. The book reveals what foods were abundant and cheap in the Washington of 1806–9; what meats and vegetables Jefferson preferred. It also discloses the cost of bread and milk, and what items on our tables today were available to an affluent household on the eastern seaboard 150 years ago. It even gives the wages of a laundress or “cleaning lady.”
In at least one category—wild fowl—there was wider choice than one coidd dream of today. One could shoot his own game or, like Etienne Lemaire, find it readily available in the public market. At the President’s House, therefore, astonishing quantities oi fowl were consumed, both wild and domestic. Pheasants by the pair, partridges by the half dozen, and wild pigeons by the dozen came regularly to table. Common birds were eaten as a matter of course. Canvasback ducks so abounded on the Potomac that they were a commonplace in Georgetown, where Lemaire did his marketing. The ducks were said to owe their excellent flavor to the seed of a particular grass, wild celery, found only along the Potomac and Susqueharma rivers. Even Sir Augustus Foster, a fastidious British diplomat of the time, forgot his usual disdain for things American and pronounced these wild ducks superior to any he had tasted in Europe. Jefferson, who enjoyed most birds, was particularly fond of guinea fowl.
Domestic and wild turkeys appeared at the President’s table once or twice weekly, the leg of the wild turkey being regarded as especially fine. Sometimes a pair of turkeys was served in a “cold pastry,” or a smaller fowl was cooked inside a larger one for a “preserve of fowle.” In the early iSoo’s breakfast was no sketchy affair, but a substantial meal designed to sustain one for many hours. So it was not unusual for the French cook to bake four pigeons or squabs in a flaky crust for the President’s breakfast. Beef tongue was also an early-morning favorite.
Lemaire purchased venison when it was available, but even as early as 1800 it was considered a delicacy in the East, and the most expensive meat one could buy. It was thirteen pence, or cents, the pound, and when he could get it, Lemaire usually purchased about thirty-five pounds. Squirrel and rabbit, nine pence the pound, were the basis for tasty ragouts. Although the President ate very little pork, a suckling pig was frequently roasted on the turnspit in the great fireplace and served to guests.
Fresh fish were relatively cheap. Shoals of perch in nearby Tiber Creek were so thick that a fisherman could gather a fine mess by firing a shotgun into them. Enormous sturgeon, simply caught by hook and line at the little falls of the Potomac, a short distance above Georgetown, found their way to market, where Lemaire frequent bought a “morceau”—no doubt a large chunk—for a quarter. Rockfish weighing as much as fifty to seventy pounds were also brought to market from the Potomac. Although quantities of crawfish and lampreys were in the river for the taking, few Americans thought them fit to eat. Lemaire, however, occasionally bought a dozen or so crabs for a penny or two apiece. Gallons of oysters from Chesapeake Bay—at ninety cents a gallon—fresh and delicious then as now, were usually marinated or baked in a pie. And Lemaire was careful to note on Friday, December 16, 1808, that he had purchased, in addition to the usual turkey and “birds,” a do/en little fish for the Roman Catholics who dined with the President.
Dairymen named variously Belt, Maul, Barrows, and Miller delivered milk and cream to the door. Dairy products were dear, milk being nine cents a quart, best-quality butter thirty cents a pound. Eggs cost about t\veirty cents a dozen. Seasonable and delightful local fruits of every description were cheap and abundant, but Lemaire paid eighty-five cents a dozen for oranges. Even pineapples were available, but expensive. As for breadstuff’s, no staff of servants could produce all that was needed from the ovens of the President’s House. A baker named Peter Miller delivered about a dozen loaves of bread a day. His bills averaged about fifty dollars a month, a large loaf in 1807 costing twelve and a half cents.
The Day Book’s entries begin on January 12, 1806, probably as the continuation of an earlier ledger, and conclude when the last quart of milk had been delivered and paid for on the tenth day of March, 1809 —the very day before James and Dolley Madison moved into the executive mansion. The book yields its secrets with some difficulty, for Lemaire kept it scrupulously but in doubtfully spelled, eighteenth-century French. (“I enclose you Lemaire’s receipts,” Jefferson wrote in one letter to his daughter. “The orthography will be puzzling and amusing but the receipts are valuable.”)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Early in 1809, as the last week of Jefferson’s administration drew to a close, Lemaire busied himself with the inevitable marketing and paying the final bills of the laundress, baker, and coalman. Madison had been inaugurated on March 4, but Jefferson, struggling to pack his books and possessions, continued to occupy the President’s House. This was so confusing to the milkman that he billed “The J.M.’s” for milk and cream delivered from March 5 to 10, believing that the Madisons had moved in. But Jefferson paid the bill and laid it in the Day Book, where it remains today. Then, on the evening of March 10, took place the final interview between Lemaire and Jefferson. A sum of $768.84 was required to pay the past weeks’ bills and servants’ wages. Having given Lemaire an order for this amount, Jefferson wrote the last line in the Day Book: “settled this ioth day of March 1809. & agreed to be right, & fully paid up.” Then both men ceremoniously signed their names.