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

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

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by Thomas J. Craughwell
     
 

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This culinary biography recounts the 1784 deal that Thomas Jefferson struck with his slaves, James Hemings. The founding father was traveling to Paris and wanted to bring James along “for a particular purpose”— to master the art of French cooking. In exchange for James’s cooperation, Jefferson would grant his freedom. 
 


Overview

This culinary biography recounts the 1784 deal that Thomas Jefferson struck with his slaves, James Hemings. The founding father was traveling to Paris and wanted to bring James along “for a particular purpose”— to master the art of French cooking. In exchange for James’s cooperation, Jefferson would grant his freedom. 
 

 
Thus began one of the strangest partnerships in United States history. As Hemings apprenticed under master French chefs, Jefferson studied the cultivation of French crops (especially grapes for winemaking) so the might be replicated in American agriculture. The two men returned home with such marvels as pasta, French fries, Champagne, macaroni and cheese, crème brûlée, and a host of other treats. This narrative history tells the story of their remarkable adventure—and even includes a few of their favorite recipes!

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
To get a spirited idea of what people ate in America and France just before the French Revolution, Craughwell (Stealing Lincoln’s Body) tracks the gastronomical pursuits of Thomas Jefferson and his 19-year-old Monticello slave in France. As America’s commerce commissioner in France from 1784 to 1789, Jefferson, a man of many talents and ample means, was determined to use his time in Europe to collect information on foods, utensils, and cooking methods that would help improve the “rude, rough-hewn” American kitchen, table, and palate. He brought his favored slave, James Hemings (half-brother to his beloved, recently deceased wife, Martha), to apprentice to the restaurateur Combeaux. Hemings learned the art of French cuisine and, once back as chef of Monticello, earned his freedom by imparting that knowledge to his younger brother. In France Jefferson assiduously traveled and collected seeds, foodstuffs, equipment, and wines, utilizing Hemings’s newly acquired skills to stage grand dinner parties at his Hotel de Langeac on the Champs-Elysees. Craughwell includes a few of Hemings’s recipes—such as the “mac and cheese” dish that would delight guests back in America—but the former slave’s slide into drinking and his shocking suicide at age 36 in 1801 opens up a host of questions left unanswered in this otherwise pleasant history lesson. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Drawing from the wealth of works available by or on Thomas Jefferson, Craughwell (Stealing Lincoln's Body) offers a nice introduction to the Founding Father's gastronomic pursuits during his time as U.S. Minister to France. Jefferson traveled to Paris in 1784, along with his daughter Martha and his slave James Hemings, to begin the five-year diplomatic post. A lover of good food and wine, Jefferson had a plan for Hemings: to master French cooking. Hemings mastered not only the cooking but the language as well. Upon his return to the States, Hemings brought French cuisine to the American upper class. His new ability earned him his liberty, as Jefferson had promised to free him if Hemings would first train a new cook (he trained his brother Peter). Four appendixes cover wine, vegetables, African meals at Monticello, and 12 of Heming's recipes. VERDICT Craughwell capably sets the scene and places his story in historical context, with a focus on Jefferson's time in France and the gastronomic angle. The book succeeds more as an overview of Jefferson's experiences than of Hemings's. Not for specialists, whether foodies or Founding Father scholars, but some lay readers will enjoy it.—Lisa A. Ennis, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
Craughwell (30 Days with the Irish Mystics, 2012, etc.) chronicles Jefferson's obsession with all things agricultural. When Jefferson was appointed as minister to France, he took along his slave, James Hemings, with the intention of having him trained by the best French chefs. He promised Hemings that when they returned to Virginia and he had trained a successor, he would be freed. France did not recognize slavery within its borders and James could have sued for his freedom, but he chose to stay with Jefferson and complete his training. Jefferson used his new chef to host storied dinners in Paris, successfully negotiating political and economic agreements as his guests dined. With only two servants, Jefferson set out from Paris in 1787 to explore the bounty of France. Nearly four months later, he returned with cases of wine, fruit tree saplings, seeds for unusual vegetables and rice smuggled from Lombardy in northern Italy. Instead of the promised freedom, Jefferson retained Hemings as chef during his term as secretary of state. We can thank Jefferson for not only the appreciation Americans developed for champagne, but also the techniques and dishes that Hemings introduced to his guests. Pasta, sauces, fried potatoes and even macaroni and cheese were served along with new types and strains of vegetables America had never seen. Craughwell provides a delightful tour of 18th-century vineyards still in production, a look at French aristocrats just before the Revolution and the France that paid little attention to the color of a man's skin. A slim but tasty addition to the long list of Jefferson's accomplishments.
From the Publisher
"[A] tasty addition to the long list of Jefferson's accomplishments." —Kirkus

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594745782
Publisher:
Quirk Publishing
Publication date:
09/18/2012
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
534,962
Product dimensions:
5.62(w) x 8.28(h) x 0.92(d)

Meet the Author

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of several nonfiction books, including Stealing Lincoln’s Body, which was adapted into a documentary by the History Channel. He lives in Bethel, Connecticut.  

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Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An enjoyable human interest contrast to the usual Jefferson biography.