Monday, December 17, 2012

Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée - Thomas J. Craughwell

If you have been around the blog long enough, you probably know that I enjoy food.  I enjoy eating it.  I enjoy making it.  I enjoy reading about it.  In fact, one of my favorite books that I have read this year was Blood, Bones, and Butter.  Three guesses what that one's about.  I also really love history and reading about it.  Conclusively, a book about the history of food should be about my favorite thing in the world, right?  That was my hope when I discovered this book.

Thomas J. Craughwell presents an interesting thesis.  His work describes Thomas Jefferson, along with one of his slaves, as the vehicles by which French cuisine came to America.  Between writing the Declaration of Independence and serving as the nation's third president, Jefferson served as an ambassador to pre-revolutionary France.  During this time, he took with him James Hemings, one of his slaves.  Jefferson made an agreement with Hemings.  Hemings would master French cuisine while overseas.  Upon their return, he would train another slave in the art; Jefferson would then free Hemings.

Hemings did intend become a student of French cuisine and brought his knowledge back not only to Monticello but other parts of the new democracy as well.  Jefferson, for his part, played a role greater than just patron.  During his time in Europe, Jefferson traveled extensively on a hunt for new foods and tools for their preparation.  He collected wines, plants, seeds, oils, and kitchen gadgets.  When he returned to the States, he brought with him a wealth of new products to introduce to the New World.  While some of these gained popularity, others were not such a success.  Jefferson's attempt at a vineyard suffered due to the variance in soil between Europe and Virginia.  The main roadblock to adaptation of French and European cuisine in American, though, seemed to be the Americans themselves.  They took great pride in their "homegrown" cooking and shied away from anything they concerned too fancy or complex.  This accounts for much of why French cuisine did not become popular in America until Julia Child bridged the gap for housewives in the mid-1900s.

I found Craughwell's work to be a good balance of history and food, although I could have done with a little less French Revolution history.  I understand the importance of setting the stage, but, since I already knew the history, I found it unimportant to furthering the book.  I did learn a lot, however, about the history of food and serving during the 1700s.  One thing in particular that really stood out to me was that the large portion sizes that have led America into struggles with obesity are nothing new.  "What the colonists had in abundance was food, and they loaded their tables with a rich variety of dishes as both a token of hospitality and a sign of their personal pride in the richness of the New World."  There was little difference in the food and quantity of it between the tables of the rich and the poor.  Craughwell's descriptions of a typical menu are astonishing in their bounty and variety.  With all that food, it never crossed my mind how they would keep it all warm.  Craughwell describes these tactics at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King.
"The procession was led from the kitchen buliding, located across the road form the palace, and winded its way through the many halls and corridors of Versailles before finally reaching Louis, who often dined in his bedroom.  As a result, virtually all the food arrived at the king's table tepid, if not stone cold."   
I find it amazing that one of the most extravagant kings in history did not even get to eat hot food.  Later, Craughwell describes the use of platters with hot water or hot sand in a compartment in the bottom to keep food warm.  These were used in Jefferson's home, despite the fact his slaves did not have nearly as far to travel between kitchen and table as those at Versailles.
"There is no consensus among culinary historians whether James Hemings and Thomas Jefferson were the first to introduce macaroni and cheese to America; perhaps they did not, but Jefferson served it often at Monticello and later at the White House, which went a long way toward establishing its popularity in the United States."
To me, this quote sums up Craughwell's work well.  Jefferson and Hemings brought many new foods and techniques to America.  They certainly cannot be credited for popularizing all of those things, but they can be credited with at least some of the exposure.   Craughwell put together a unique and interesting work, which was a quick and enjoyable read.  And - he combined history and food!  There could not be a better combination for me!

Pages: 256
Date Completed: December 7, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment