Review: Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America

Thomas J. Craughwell

In the summer of 1790, Thomas Jefferson invited James Madison and secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton to dinner at Monticello to discuss the federal government assuming individual states’ crippling American Revolution debts. Hamilton was all for it. Madison opposed it. And Jefferson sympathized with both. But he hoped the trio would “find some temperament for the present fever.” And they did, over a lavish meal paired with fine French wines. “So ended one of the most momentous private dinners in American history, and it had been prepared by James Hemings,” writes Craughwell of the founder’s slave.

Never mind Julia Child: Craughwell, working extensively from letters, documents and recipes, chronicles how Jefferson and Hemings introduced French cuisine to America, a new country that knew nothing of truffles, olive oil and champagne, not to mention macaroni. Heartbroken after the death of his wife, Jefferson took the post of minister to France and crossed the Atlantic in 1784 with Hemings, who was brought for the sole purpose of learning to cook—think hollandaise and béchamel—from French chefs. In return for his efforts, Jefferson promised to free Hemings once he’d passed on what he’d learned to an apprentice back at Monticello. In 1796, Jefferson kept his promise.

The book is packed full with gastronomic details, from the colonial diet to what Jefferson planted in the garden behind his home on the Champs-Élysées. And no tale of Jefferson would be complete without acknowledging his moral inconsistencies when it came to slavery. He condemned it as an “abominable crime,” but unlike George Washington, he never freed his slaves in his will. Craughwell skims the surface. But he does provide a glimpse of Jefferson and Hemings’s complicated relationship: in 1801, when Jefferson sent his former slave, now a tavern cook in Baltimore, a letter to see if he’d be his chef at the “President’s House,” Hemings wrote back asking for more details. Jefferson never responded.




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