BOOK REVIEW: RIDGE WRITERS ON BOOKS“Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee”

(review by) Donna McCrohan Rosenthal

After Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and before he became our nation’s third president, he went to France. “Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee” How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America” (by Thomas J. Craughwell, illus., indexed, 233 pages, Quirk Books, hardcover, 2012, $19.95) tells the story of those years.

In 1784, Congress added Jefferson to the U.S. commission for negotiating treaties with the European powers. Although Jefferson thoroughly enjoyed his home in Virginia where he pursued his interests as a political philosopher, amateur naturalist, zealous bibliophile and ardent gardener who had more than three hundred varieties of vegetables in his garden, he welcomed the opportunity to explore the Old World’s advancements. Besides, as a serious gourmand, he looked forward to experiencing refined cuisine in an era when Americans favored sturdy English fare and considered French meals frivolous. He struck a deal with his slave James Hemings who accompanied him. Once abroad, Hemings would apprentice with a chef and master the art of French cooking. In return, Jefferson would grant him freedom.

Jefferson joined fellow commissioners Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Paris all but worshipped Franklin as an inventor, diplomat and charismatic figure. Adams resented Franklin’s partying. Craughwell writes, “Thanks to Adams’s grousing and griping, we have a marvelously detailed portrait of Franklin’s life in Paris.”

For his part, Jefferson fit right in with the elite and their way of thinking. They believed that the ideal society would embrace liberty and treat everyone as equals, despite rank and class. He had far less enthusiasm for the monarchy under Louis XVI, and he heartily disapproved of Marie Antoinette. Still in France when a mob stormed the Bastille, he witnessed the early stirrings of the French Revolution.

When he headed back across the ocean, he brought 86 crates of kitchen utensils and equipment with him, plus ingredients not available in the U.S., plus the newly skilled Hemings. Together the two delivered the first pasta, macaroni and cheese, French fries, champagne and crème brulee to our shores.

As much as we may feel we know about Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and the French Revolution, Craughwell presents facets of the cultural context that we rarely see. “Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee” concludes with a Jefferson chronology and reproductions of several of Hemings’s and Jefferson’s recipes. From beginning to end, the book serves up a fast read and a rewarding confection.

Story First Published: 2014-02-12