Though he’s widely recognized for his role in shaping American politics, architecture, and even gardening, few people know that Thomas Jefferson was also a renowned epicure. In his new book Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America, author Thomas J. Craughwell delves into the president’s surprising culinary legacy, which includes popularizing the likes of champagne and French fries.
The story is really about Jefferson’s slave James Hemings, though, whom he took with him to France for a government posting In 1784. Hemings’ connection to Jefferson was unique to say the least; he was a relative by marriage, as half-brother to Jefferson’s wife Martha. While the pair were stationed in Paris, Hemings trained in classic French culinary techniques. He took lessons in the language as well, and—as noted by Craughwell—spoke it even better than Jefferson.
Hemings had a major incentive to learn French cuisine, as it was part of an exchange for freedom, provided he also transferred the skills to someone at Jefferson’s estate Monticello. Back in America, Jefferson would host dinner parties and Hemings was the key to their success, serving classic Gallic fare to some of the nation’s influential people. It wasn’t until six years after their return to America that Hemings finally gained his freedom.
So there you have it. Before Julia Child or Jacques Pépin, there was a slave named James Hemings who helped bring French food to Americans.
[via Chicago Tribune]