Thomas Jefferson Had A Bizarre Diet That Was Way Ahead Of Its Time

July 09, 2019

If he were alive today, Thomas Jefferson would probably be described as a foodie. That’s right, America’s third president, loved to experience new and innovative food culture. In pursuit of his next big bite, Jefferson traveled the western world over. He spent his time as Minister to France in the 1780s eating newly created delicacies like pommes frites (French fries), mayonnaise, and ice cream. Put simply, Thomas Jefferson’s diet was way ahead of its time. He was committed to the freshest, most seasonal vegetables. And he was innovative and adventurous in the way he created fusions of French and Southern food traditions. Jefferson’s gardens at his Virginia home of Monticello represented a melting pot of fruits and vegetables from around the world, and they serve as inspiration to sustainable, organic farmers into the present day. 

Did Thomas Jefferson invent ice cream? Well, no, and he also didn’t invent pasta. But he did help popularize both foods in the States. Thomas Jefferson’s vanilla ice cream recipe is considered one of the first recipes recorded by an American. Whether he stuffed his pockets with rice in Italy or imported 700 bottles of wine from Europe, Jefferson certainly had a diet and commitment to food that stand out in 18th-century America.

He committed “international espionage” by smuggling Italian rice into America.

The Piedmont Countryside

In the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson lived in Paris as the American Minister to France. When he wasn’t attending functions of state, Jefferson spent lots of time studying French agriculture and cooking. While frequenting Parisian food markets, Jefferson noticed something about rice consumption: Italian Piedmont rice appeared to outsell American rice varieties. Jefferson, curious, ventured to the Lombard region of Italy to learn more about the cultivation of Piedmont rice. He discovered that it flourished in dry climates, which he believed would create safer growing conditions on plantations. Thus, while in Italy, Jefferson came to the conclusion that it would be a boon to American agriculture to grow its own Piedmont rice. 

The third president filled his pockets.

Rather than asking for permission, however, Jefferson committed an act of low-grade international espionage. He stuffed some of the rice into his pockets and attempted to get larger quantities shipped to plantations Stateside – without asking for Italian approval.

He knew so much about wine that he advised other presidents on what to serve.

Rice wasn’t the only foodstuff that Jefferson developed a passion for during his time as Minister to France. He also developed quite the interest in – and knowledge of – wines and winemaking. His cellars at Monticello, his Virginia home, stayed stocked with wines from all over the West. The historical record is filled with his thoughts on wines from around the world. In 1816, for example, Jefferson waxed about his love of Tuscan wines, writing: “I confine myself to the physical want of some good Montepulciano… this being a very favorite wine, and habit having rendered the light and high flavored wines a necessary of life with me.”

Other presidents looked to him for help.

Jefferson had such a well-respected wine palate that he even advised other presidents on what to serve at their own state functions. He is said to have given George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams advice on such matters of vino.

He spread his love of “maccaroni” in the US.

While traveling in Northern Italy, Jefferson developed a love for a particularly Italian carb: then-called “maccaroni,” noodles. One might simply refer to it as “pasta” in modern terms, though. Jefferson liked the noodles so much he acquired what might have been the first-ever pasta maker on American soil.

There were mountains of mac n cheese.

A thrower of lavish dinner parties, Jefferson entertained his guests with mountains of macaroni and cheese, courtesy of his custom pasta maker.

He considered meat a “condiment” to his primary meal of vegetables.

Don’t call him a vegetarian, though.

Though not strictly vegetarian by modern standards, Thomas Jefferson’s plant-heavy diet stands out as unique for its time. The folks around him certainly took notice of it. His granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, once wrote: “He lived principally on vegetables… The little meat he took seemed merely as a seasoning for his vegetables.” Jefferson himself reflected on his preferences, writing: “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, & that, not as an aliment so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.”

Given his interest in plant varieties and agricultural best practices – and given the fact that his terraced gardens at Monticello contained some 330 varieties of 89 species of vegetables and herbs and 170 varieties of the finest fruit varieties known at the time – perhaps it’s not difficult to understand why Jefferson’s plate overflowed with more vegetables than meat.

He brought James Hemings, an enslaved man, with him to France to train in the cuisine.

Enslaved folks served as the primary cooks for several early American presidents. George Washington’s enslaved cook, Hercules, received recognition for his culinary abilities and for the first president’s appreciation of his cooking. Thomas Jefferson, who owned enslaved people at Monticello, followed suit in this regard. However, he also took it an international step further. Jefferson arranged for James Hemings, an enslaved man, to accompany him to Paris. He wanted Hemings to receive schooling in the art of French cooking.

He became a chef and a free man.

As a result of his culinary study, Hemings became the chef de cuisine at Jefferson’s home on the Champs-Elysees. Later, when he was 30 years old, Hemings negotiated his emancipation.

He had enormous shipments of imported foods and wine delivered to Monticello.

…to the tune of 680 bottles of wine.

Jefferson didn’t just have pasta makers and ice cream molds shipped to Monticello. And he didn’t always stuff his pockets with imports either. While in Europe, Jefferson had almost 700 bottles of wine, bottles of olive oil, pots, pans, cheese, anchovies, and mustard sent back to the U.S. And all those imports don’t even come close to the amount of seeds and plant varietals he either brought or had shipped back as a result of his travels.

His vanilla ice cream recipe is considered one of the first recorded American recipes.

j

While Thomas Jefferson certainly didn’t invent ice cream (though a persistent myth says so), it is likely the case that Jefferson’s love of the sweet, creamy dessert combined with his culinary influence helped popularize the after-dinner treat. Jefferson developed a love of ice cream, along with lots of other foods, while serving as Minister in France. Moreover, he had two “freising molds” shipped to his home at Monticello.

And he wrote it all down.

Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream is regarded as one of the first-known recipes recorded by an American.

He broke with tradition in the way he threw his dinner parties.

In fact, Jefferson ignored social rank when he planned dinner seating.

The historical record is rich with reminiscences from Thomas Jefferson’s dinner guests. Some took to their notebooks and letter writing to describe the experience of meals at the White House. One guest described an “inelegant” meal at the president’s abode. This less-than-elegant dinner consisted of “[rice] soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef, a pie called macaroni… [ice] cream very good… a dish somewhat like pudding” and “[many] other jimcracks, a great variety of fruit, plenty of wines, and good.” And if the meal didn’t strike guests as inelegant, perhaps the seating did. Jefferson often gave his guests “pell-mell” or random seating arrangements. Guests in the period would have been accustomed to dinner seating based on rank. 

Finally, in addition to the menu and the seating, guests at a dinner with Jefferson regularly endured the “inelegance” of serving themselves. He wanted to stop staff and enslaved workers from eavesdropping. So, Jefferson rigged up a system of dumbwaiters and encouraged guests to fill their own plates, buffet-style.

The sheer scale of his garden at Monticello is astonishing.

Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello became a real laboratory of western agriculture thanks to his travels. Plus, people from around the world sent him seeds to experiment with. He grew 25 varieties of tomatoes alone. More astonishing, perhaps, were the 250 varieties of greens he grew there. Additionally, Jefferson grew apples, peaches, peas, peanuts, winter melon, asparagus bean, cauliflower, broccoli, sesame, chickpeas, eggplant, cayenne pepper, lima beans, and rutabaga, just to name a few. 

A Virginia attempt at pure veggie experimentation.

In all, Jefferson’s 1,000-foot long terraced garden housed 330 varieties of 89 species of vegetables and herbs and 170 varieties of fruit.

A 200-year-old bottle of Jefferson’s wine is probably one of the most expensive wines to go to waste.

“It was a disaster.”

Likely due to the immense size of his collection, Jefferson didn’t finish all the bottles of wine he acquired during his lifetime. Naturally, those bottles that survived the test of time became valuable. So it was a rather expensive mistake when, in 1989, a wine merchant displaying a bottle of Jefferson-owned 1787 Chateau Margaux wine broke the bottle during an attempt to sell it at a wine tasting in Manhattan. The wine, which seller Bill Sokolin hoped to sell for $519,000, bumped against a serving tray and broke. About 80% of the wine got lost in the process. The Los Angeles Times spoke to Sokolin in the wake of the expensive accident, and Sokolin admitted: “It was a disaster. Thank God it was broken by me and not anyone else.” 

Jefferson served “half French, half Virginian” fare at Monticello.

There’s no doubt that Jefferson received inspiration from the food revolution happening in France during his time there. Late 18th-century France went through a period of immense culinary change, debate, and experimentation. And many of the foods and practices considered quintessentially French (and quintessentially fine dining) developed during this period. Inspired, Jefferson brought practices and dishes back to the States with him. A French influence permeated his kitchens.

But it wasn’t just France that had an influence.

The cuisine of the American South frequently appeared in the Jefferson kitchens. Monticello.org lists “French fries, peanuts, Johnny-cakes, gumbo, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pudding, sesame seed oil, fried eggplant, [and] perhaps such American icons as potato chips, tomato catsup, and pumpkin pie” as foods prepared at Monticello and the White House. This mashup led to the description of Jefferson’s signature food style as “half French, half Virginian.

He published “A General Gardening Calendar” guide to seasonal gardening.

He gave advice on Monday morning planting rituals.

Despite his well-developed and deeply thought out gardens at Monticello, Jefferson only published a single piece on the matter, “A General Guide To Gardening Calendar” in 1824. In it, Jefferson instructs his agricultural readers to plant “thimble spools” of lettuce on Monday mornings from February to September among other bits of wisdom.

He hosted an annual contest focused on his favorite vegetable.

Spoiler: it centered on peas.

According to The Jefferson Dinner, Thomas Jefferson – despite all of his world traveling and exposure to foreign cuisine – loved a most humble vegetable most: the garden pea. As a celebration of the unassuming pea, Jefferson hosted an annual contest with his neighbors. They competed to see who could grow the most of them the soonest in the growing season. The winner hosted a feast in celebration of their feat.

He offers inspiration to the modern organic gardening movement.

He was an agricultural innovator.

Thomas Jefferson serves as an inspiration for the contemporary sustainable agriculture movement for good reason. He committed to serving the freshest, most seasonal fruits and vegetables on his tables at the White House and Monticello. Reportedly, he passed on some of the seeds he gathered abroad to Washington, D.C. market gardeners. The former president even paid extra to obtain the earliest produce they grew from the seeds. He wrote letters about the value of manure and once noted that “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add [a] useful plant to its culture.”

Some of the veggies in Michelle Obama’s White House Garden honor of Jefferson.

In her capacity as First Lady, former FLOTUS Michelle Obama spearheaded an initiative focused on health, well being, and reducing childhood obesity. As one of the first steps in what would become her “Let’s Move” campaign, Obama broke ground on the South Lawn of the White House for the White House Kitchen Garden in 2009. And she dedicated part of that garden to a former president who might have really appreciated it: Thomas Jefferson.

There are figs in tribute to the third president.

Sam Cass, White House Chef and Coordinator of the White House Food Initiative, as well as Jefferson devotee, filled a small corner of the garden with some of Jefferson’s favorites, including Marseilles figs along with various lettuce and spinach varieties.