Foodies and Polymaths
Few scholars are cooks-and fewer cooks scholars. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that no other aspect of human endeavor has been so neglected by historians as home cooking.
-Food historian Karen Hess in Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery, 1981
In April 1962, two months before I graduated from James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia, President John F. Kennedy, at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere, paid homage to Thomas Jefferson's wide-ranging interests and talents when he remarked, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Five months later, I was enrolled at Mr. Jefferson's Academical Village, the University of Virginia, and was living in Echol's Hall as an Echol's Scholar.
To say that Jefferson was-and still is-worshipped at the university is an understatement. His legacy lingers everywhere, from the serpentine walls he designed for the gardens to the buildings he modeled after Greco-Roman structures and the statues of him and of George Washington opposite each other on the lawn. The story went that, if a virginal woman passed between the two statues, Mr. Washington would bow to Mr. Jefferson.
It was a tradition that we wore coats and ties to class. We were not required to do this, of course, but everyone dressed up because we were Virginia gentlemen (we even drank that brand of bourbon!). Our "uniform" was a blue blazer, khaki slacks, a light-blue button-down shirt (Gant, of course), a rep tie in the university's colors of orange and navy blue, and Weejun penny loafers with no socks in warm weather. One morning during my first year, on the way to take an exam that I had studied most of the night for, I was crossing the lawn when I passed Dr. Edgar F. Shannon, the president of the university. I was mortified because that morning I had skipped the tie, but Dr. Shannon made no mention of it. He merely said, "Good morning, David." Unbelievable-he had remembered my name after a single meeting months earlier at an Echol's Scholar orientation party.
My education at the university-I majored in English and took creative writing courses-ultimately led to my writing career, but not before a radical change in focus. No longer would I specialize in animal symbolism in the novels of James Joyce, my masters' thesis title; I would study and write about my first loves, food history and cooking.
Jefferson became my most significant hero. After I graduated from the university in 1966, I knew from the history I had absorbed that Thomas Jefferson was the ultimate multitalented and multidimensional historical figure. But I didn't know about his love of food and wine until many years later, when I began to read more history, especially more food history. Jefferson's name appeared time and time again in the history of wine, horticulture, and food importation. While working on Da Vinci's Kitchen, I consulted Silvano Serventi and Françoise Sabban's Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food and discovered that Jefferson was widely credited with being the first American to import pasta into the new United States. It wasn't precisely true, but that did it-I was hooked.
During my subsequent research, I realized that the story of early American food and wine was not just about Jefferson but also included Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and many obscure but brilliant individuals who became my "founding foodies." I decided that this was a food history that had to be written, but there were obstacles. The first and most important challenge was the lingering reputation of colonial-era food-it was not good at all, according to most accounts.
But in 1977, food historians John Hess and Karen Hess wrote this in The Taste of America: "Thus, in this bicentennial period, such quasi-official historians as Daniel J. Boorstin and James Beard assure us that we have never had it so good-that Colonial Americans were primitives and ignoramuses in matters gastronomic. The truth is almost precisely to the contrary. The Founding Fathers were as far superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they were in the quality of their prose and of their intelligence." My research proves that the Hess theory is true, and what I've learned has opened a window into the past culinary triumphs of those founding foodies.
After I developed the concept for this book, I returned to the University of Virginia in 2007 to participate in a tour of Virginia vineyards conducted by the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. The program was excellent, with a private tour of Monticello and the location of Jefferson's failed vineyards. There were lectures on Jefferson's influence on wine and wine making in the United States, and we saw a very nicely produced PBS video documentary titled The Cultivated Life: Thomas Jefferson and Wine. While I was in Virginia, I also took a tour of George Washington's Mount Vernon and the restored gristmill and distillery, and I was impressed by the detailed exhibits that revealed Washington's importance in colonial whiskey making, farming, and ranching. The return to Virginia gave me a renewed sense of both place and history. My journey to write Founding Foodies has been long, but that now seems fitting, because I knew I had finally learned enough to attempt such a challenging project.
The term foodie encompasses a devotion to food in its many contexts. I've decided to use the word foodie in this book because I have been unable to find a better, more inclusive term that describes food devotion. Gourmet applies in only some cases of food devotion, not, for example, to people who devoted their lives to agricultural experimentation to find better crops. Likewise, epicure, gastronome, and gourmand do not work in the broad contexts that this book explores.
So what is a foodie? The restaurant critic Gael Greene coined the term foodie in the early 1980s, and it moved into common usage when foodies became the targets-and the heroes-of Ann Barr and Paul Levy's 1984 book The Official Foodie Handbook. In that prescient and hilarious work, the authors defined a foodie as "a person who is very, very, very interested in food. Foodies are the ones talking about food in any gathering-salivating over restaurants, recipes, radicchio. They don't think they are being trivial-foodies consider food to be an art, on a level with painting or drama...The purpose of life is eating well."