Mar 112013

The next time you bite into some quintessentially American food– peach pie, mac ‘n cheese, a fried artichoke heart– you probably have Thomas Jefferson to thank.

I’d had an inkling that he was responsible for bringing a lot of culinary concepts back over from France, (and thanks to a visit to Monticello, I’d known he was an avid gardener), but I didn’t know the depth of it until I was assigned a paper on the topic in “American Regional Cuisine.”

Jefferson’s contributions span not only the introduction to the United States of foods and techniques popular in Europe, (particularly France, where he spent some years as a diplomat), but also the introduction of an incredible variety of non-native fruits and vegetables to the Colonial U.S.

An avid gardener and horticulturalist, Jefferson carefully designed the landscape of Monticello, his Virginia estate, to include a series of gardens, orchards, and vineyards. His plantings provided not only beauty, but also an enjoyable outdoor laboratory for his horticultural experimentation. Plus, he was proud to grow an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables– previously unseen in the New World– for his kitchens.

Jefferson’s “kitchen garden,” as he termed it, was located on the Southeastern slope of Monticello; below the mountaintop house. His meticulous records, (which he kept for all of his endeavors), show that he grew peas, broad beans, scarlet runner beans, broccoli, cauliflower, endive, eggplant, radishes, cucumbers, various lettuces, cabbages, okra, tomatoes, beets, carrots, squash, asparagus, artichokes, and sea kale.  His orchards featured peaches, cherries, plums, apples, apricots, figs, pears, and almonds.  In “berry beds” he grew early strawberries, as well as currants, gooseberries, and raspberries.  Even edible nasturtium flowers were grown for his table– which is to say, for livening up the plates, rather than the vases– of his guests.  His vineyards were planted with French grape varietals (a different species than the grapes native to North America, though he grew those as well), and were the progenitor of winemaking in America.

Jefferson also generously distributed these non-native seeds and cuttings from his gardens and orchards to neighbors and friends. As a result, many of the old-world varietals he brought back for his own estate also took root beyond it.

Jefferson’s contributions to American cuisine, largely brought back with him from France, include ice cream, french fries, macaroni, (though the term macaroni as they used it was closer to our catch-all term for “pasta”), wine, waffles, mustard, meringues, many types of cookies and desserts, several of the fruit and vegetable varieties mentioned above, and more.

It’s a fun exercise to reflect on his gardens and kitchens, now, at the beginning of spring, as we plan our own gardens for the coming warm months. Complicated though his legacy may be– you can’t deny his brilliant palate.


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