Our Dinner with Thomas Jefferson (1823)
Thomas Jefferson's botanic and culinary contributions to the American heritage, and his interest in wine and viticulture, are all well known. Often forgotten, however, is the significance of these devotions to his prescient political and socioeconomic convictions; thoroughly entwined with the same inspirations we read in the Declaration of Independence. Hence, this imagnary tale told from the perspective of a farmer/viticultural couple visiting Monticello from Georgia; told, of course, with the benefit twenty-first century hindsight, but inspired by my own visit to this landmark, where the full extent of Jefferson's phenomenal vision truly hits home.
With details based upon documented facts and readings (references listed at the end), and complimented by photos of Monticello also taken by yours truly during that unforgettable visit:
The letter arrived, twenty years earlier in 1823, as the winter frosts beneath the tulip maple and white pines surrounding our Georgia mountain homestead began to thaw. It read:
Dear fellow vignerons,
We share a mutual interest in the fruits of the vine…
The letter went on to explain its provenance:
Recently I have been enjoying bottles of your Mother Vineyard Muscadine, as generous gifts from Nicholas Ware, the distinguished Congressman from Georgia. I wish to learn more about how you produce a wine of grace and honesty. Indeed, the Mother Vineyard seems to shout, “I am a proud American.”
What followed was an invitation to dinner and lodging in a very famous home. At the end it was signed:
I am with great esteem, your most obedt, humble servt,
… the very same Thomas Jefferson: third President of our United States, former Secretary of State, author of our Declaration of Independence, architect, archeologist, gastronome, Renaissance man, and we are proud to say, flattering fellow farmer and family friend. We immediately responded, with enthusiasm, to an affirmative, as we had long put off a visit to close family members residing in nearby North Carolina. In any case, a request from one of the greatest of our Founding Fathers made this "side journey" an immediate necessity!
So we shall never forget that mid-day in July of 1823, when our horse and carriage passed over the bridge at the foot of Monticello, the “little mountain” serving as Mr. Jefferson’s five thousand acre plantation. We cannot promise that our recounting of conversations, two decades after the fact, is word-for-word, but please bear the circumstances in mind: since they remain the highlight of our lives, what came to pass has been permanently imprinted by both countless retellings, and the ever growing fondness of those memories.
At an hour arranged previously through correspondence, we were met at the bridge by a middle-aged gentleman of lean stature, kind eyes and a strong, narrowing chin: Captain Edmund Bacon, the longtime overseer of Monticello. Alighting from his chestnut sorrel, Captain Bacon bowed and introduced himself and his horse, Peacemaker, saying, “Welcome to Monticello, the very heart and mind of Mr. Thomas Jefferson!”
Engaging him in kind, we boldly inquired as to the meaning of his cryptic greeting. Captain Bacon’s reply, expressed with some bemusement: “You will find it to be no mystery, but on the contrary, something plain to see everywhere you shall go – that Monticello is not simply a mountain upon which my famous master has resided following long service to his country.
“Monticello is a living, breathing extension of Mr. Jefferson’s passions, hence his heart, and the science and rationality with which he has always undertaken to answer the endless questions springing from his mind – which I assure you, is keener than ever, despite his advanced age of eighty years, and his consuming taste for spirits of the vine, which he has told me is the purpose of your visit. So then, are you representatives of the wine trade?”
Not exactly, we explained, for we are ourselves plantation owners; coming from the foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from Fort Peachtree along Chattahoochee River, where businessmen grown fat on the revenue from railroads have recently taken to calling Atlanta. In our own home we endeavor to ply multiple industries; notably fruit and nut orchards, timbering, and a modest bit of horse husbandry.
“We actually make wine for pleasure," we told Captain Bacon, "although we are not opposed to sharing the wealth with neighbors and friends of influence... but insofar as the hard labors inherent in the stewardship of a mountain plantation, we are eager to see how much more, besides wine and grapes, we have in common with Monticello.”
“Oh, I believe you will find quite a bit!” Captain Bacon jovially responded. With that, he led us slowly, as if to accentuate the majesty, up a winding road for approximately a country mile, which transitioned into about another 300 feet of sharper incline before leveling off through stands of native woodland between industriously farmed wheat, oats, rye, rooted vegetables, and mixtures of row crops on lower slopes. We were surprised to see corn in just a few small patches; and no tobacco, a commodity still synonymous with Virginian and Caroline plantation life.
Noticing to our curiosity, our guide explained: “Quite some time ago Mr. Jefferson banished the large leaf, which he calls a ‘slovenly business’ despite the profit possible in its addictive properties, after becoming disenchanted by the harmful effects the growing of it has on the land. The same for corn, which like tobacco, requires year-round attention to the detriment of other food crops Mr. Jefferson deems essential, as well as on the raising of livestock we consider of equal importance.
“Subsequently, Mr. Jefferson insists on year-round rotation of crops; an action that better enriches the earth while bidding defiance to droughts and insects, and also provides yields of greater abundance and more satisfactory quality. Ultimately, this wholesome balance nourishes a populace of even stronger constitution, for we are only as wealthy as the health of our bodies -- or so Mr. Jefferson is fond of saying. The farms that you see here, and eastward across the Rivanna River another four miles where the property ends, are divided into forty acre parcels, each managed by families or individuals belonging to our enslaved population.
“While slaves they may be, the Jefferson family purchases the crops and livestock that are raised on this estate, and the rest they may sell to neighbors or in nearby markets, for fair prices contributing to personal income. In return, they are happy to follow Mr. Jefferson’s directives concerning the nature of their farming in Monticello.”
Searching our eyes to glean a hint of discomfort, after being apprised of this most unusual relationship between master and slave, Captain Bacon added: “I may as well give warning, before you meet the great man himself: no servants ever had a kinder master than Mr. Jefferson. Whether or not you may agree, he does not like slavery – I have heard him talk a great deal about this during all the time I have known him, which is well nigh twenty years. He believes the institution of slavery to be a bad system, and he has prophesied that it will soon bring our country into a ruinous divide.”
Before we could fully contemplate the gravity of Captain Bacon’s unexpected insight, we found ourselves distracted by our approach to the very top of the mountain, catching our first sight of the majestic dome crowning the Monticello home, followed by the dramatic emergence of a spectacularly tall (at least 18 feet), glass doorway – as if signifying the transparent glimpse into the great man and his property that we were about to have – between four white columns. To either side of the pathway leading to the door were two young little-leaf lindens, already stretching their darkly creased limbs to the sky like lanky yearlings, the sunlight sparkling on the green leaves, quivering in the quickening breeze.
But before passing between the lindens, Captain Bacon turned our carriage onto a graveled pathway veering to the right, through a tunnel of several dozen mulberry trees. “Mr. Jefferson calls this Mulberry Row for obvious reasons,” according to our guide, “but in order to prepare you further for your meeting with Mr. Jefferson, I wish to lead you past the house’s north pavilion which disguises a row of stables, a carriage and ice house beneath, and is connected to the schoolhouse you see at the end.
“This allée shall take us into Mr. Jefferson’s ‘Grove’ – his vision of how natural landscaping should appear. Apart from native woods, there are well over one hundred other species of trees, collected from the world over, planted on the plantation. The Grove consists primarily of Mr. Jefferson’s ‘pet’ trees, all native of America, and this is where he frequently goes to meditate, read or write.”
As our guide pointed out the wild crab, chinaberry, umbrella magnolia, aspen, red cedar ("this tree, to encourage the population of Mr. Jefferson’s favorite bird, the mockingbird,” according to Captain Bacon), and other species we can no longer recall, we could not help but be enthralled by such an arboretum, which most layman would mistake for completely wild except for the high trimming of branches and glades cleared of enough undergrowth to create an airy atmosphere, and occasional stumps left to enhance the impression of “living” rooms.
Turning back towards the house, the roundabout took us past a handsome stand of sugar maples (“unfortunately,” according to Captain Bacon, “our winters have proven too mild for their saps to rise”) before reaching the pavilion on the south side of the house, where the path entered another tunnel of mulberries where we beheld a row of stone and log structures, all serving to sustain the life and independence of this mountain community.
In contrast with the busy sounds of birdlife and smell of greenery and honeysuckle carried on winds whistling through the trees on the north side of Mulberry Row, the din and smells of the south side were dominated by the activities of enslaved as well as free laborers, emanating from over a dozen buildings; including a carpenter’s shop and sawpit, a joinery for the estate’s skilled masons, a blacksmith’s and nailery (“our one industry of outside commerce,” according to Captain Bacon), a storehouse, smokehouse and dairy, several log dwellings for both enslaved and free workers, and finally a larger stone house under a slanted roof identified as the weavers’ cottage.
Once past the cottage, Captain Bacon directed our attention to a level terrace of row crops, woven into its own marvelous cloth of multiple colors and textures, stretching a thousand feet along the mountaintop’s southern flank. The colorful runner was broken by numerous teepees of climbing peas and edible flowers, tall grey mounds of sharp leafed thistles we soon learned were called artichokes, and a red bricked pavilion capped with white Chinese railings, standing like a castle turret at the very center of the supporting rock wall: a breath taking sight against the vivid blues and greens of the landscape leading to Virginia’s Blue Ridge, skirting the horizon. “This,” our guide announced, “is Mr. Jefferson’s vegetable garden, although he often refers to it more descriptively as his kitchen garden, and sometimes even as his 'outdoor laboratory.'
“But you may find the plantings just below the garden walls even more interesting,” said Captain Bacon, pointing to seventeen beautifully espaliered row of grape vines, sitting on seventeen terraces on the south facing slope. Before we could speak, Captain Bacon raised a hand to interrupt, saying, “I shall not utter a word on this matter – not so much because I know you are also seasoned grape growers, but because I know Mr. Jefferson would prefer that the subject of viticulture be addressed at his pleasure alone. This, after all, is why you are here!”
After graciously allowing us few minutes to stroll down to take a closer look at the garden – one row of staked bushes particularly caught our eyes, for they bore unidentifiable but plump, exotic looking red and yellow fruits – and then closer to the wall looking down upon Mr. Jefferson’s vineyard, Captain Bacon pulled out his timepiece, and tapping a finger to the glass, he said, “we have passed two o’clock, which means that in less than an hour you are to be called to dine with Mr. Jefferson.”
Led through the glass doors, we felt as dwarfed by this perfectly symmetrical, Roman inspired mansion as we already were by the beauty of the mountain itself. Immediately upon entering the high ceilinged front hall of Monticello – bedecked with artifacts of native Indian tribes of the west, maps of lands far (as Africa) and near (a historical map naming only eighteen states), skins of strange animals and enormous jaw bones of beasts that no longer walk the earth – we were approached by a perfectly attired Negro man of less than average height, but whose head of receding grey hair was held high by an almost impossibly erect posture: Mr. Burwell Colbert, Mr. Jefferson’s personal butler, and director of Monticello’s enslaved household staff.
Greeting us with a bow and modest smile, Mr. Colbert escorted us through a doorway to our left, where Martha Jefferson Randolph, daughter of our third president, awaited us in her sitting room “office.” Mrs. Randolph, we had previously learned from Captain Bacon, was also the former First Lady during Mr. Jefferson’s two terms of presidency, since her own mother (Martha Jefferson) had passed away years before. At Monticello Mrs. Randolph retained the same position as head of the Jefferson household; while living at that time on the upper floors of Monticello (Mr. Jefferson’s chambers were alongside his study and library on the first floor) with the youngest of her eight children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.
"Welcome," she said, seizing our attention with piercing eyes, clearly enunciated words and snowy white drift of hair, underscored by the strongly defined Jeffersonian jaw. “I am afraid that you have arrived without a moment to spare, since my father is a notoriously punctual man who expects the same as the rest of us, no matter how occupied our day may be. Of course, I hold Captain Bacon responsible, but if you will follow me...”
Leading us across the hall past one doorway and to the next, she turned, smiled and said, “it is our pleasure to offer you the Madison Room – this room named as such because July is one of those few, cruel months when former President and Mrs. James Madison are not occupying it themselves. I am sure they will not mind your borrowing it during the week’s end.”
We gasped as we peered into the oddly shaped, gaily wallpapered room, brilliantly lit with natural light, even to the farthest edge of its double sized bed, ensconced within an alcove built into one of the room’s multiple walls. “To save you the trouble of counting the sides,” Mrs. Randolph said laughingly, “this is an octagonal shaped room – a design of my father’s that has successfully achieved his desired end… we say there are no dark corners in the Madison Room, mostly because my father did his best to eradicate corners. While Mr. Colbert sees to your travel trunks, I beg you to freshen yourselves with the water and towels provided, and I shall return to collect you in five minutes time.”
A few minutes later, standing in the even more brilliantly sun-lit Parlor, looking westward through glass doors and over-sized windows at a rounded expanse of grass bordered by English style flowerbeds, the momentous occasion arrived, to finally meet the maker of Monticello. Entering from his adjoining private chambers, and walking briskly across the room’s handsomely polished parquet floor – as timber growers, we could not help noting its flawlessly joined beech and cherry planks – Mr. Jefferson enthusiastically hailed us by name.
His handshake was strong without being oppressive, and his hazel-flecked grey eyes set with deepening lines, probing our own. His forehead, as formidably high in person as it is in portraiture, was paler above the brows, telling of considerable time spent under the sun protected by a brimmed hat; a circumference of permanently protruding grey hair extending just below the ears reinforcing that fact. We were also struck by not so much his famous height – towering over six feet and two inches – as by his perfectly proportioned, lean figure, and the regal angularity of his profile, belying the kindness in his voice.
We were flattered to hear him say, “I have been so looking forward to your visit, as it is a rare occasion when I am able to fully indulge in my interests in wine.” Turning his head, he said, “Ah, well done, Mr. Colbert, perfect timing as usual,” speaking to his butler standing with a silver tray bearing four cone shaped, finely etched glasses filled with a straw tinted wine, glimmering in the natural light reflecting off the room's high (20 feet, by our estimation), eggshell white walls. Handing a glass first to Mrs. Randolph and then to us, Mr. Jefferson smiled and proposed, “Let us toast to our shared devotion to the grape with this wine, which is called Champagne.”
We had heard of this wine from France, but were surprised that these glasses were not brimming with bubbles that we have been told are characteristic of Champagne, and so we inquired of this. “What you are speaking of is mousseaux – the sparkling style of wine now being produced in Champagne,” said Mr. Jefferson. “This is Champagne nature,” pronouncing the second word as nah-tewr, “which I take to be the purest expression of the region. I am not so fond of the sparkling styles, despite their fashionable status outside of France. As I get older I find that the bubbles, for me, distract from the natural, sharp taste of Champagne grapes, and the lingering suggestion of the limestone crusted vineyards in which these grapes are grown."
Bending closer, as if to share a scandalous secret, Mr. Jefferson added, "And besides, sparkling Champagne is never brought to a good table in France. It is the quieter, most subtle, long-lived non-mousseaux that is most esteemed by the real connoisseurs... at least the ones who I know are like you -- actual growers, not just dabblers in the arts of the grape.”
Our spirits flattered and senses aroused by this marvelous, tongue prickling still wine, we inquired about the reputation of the Jefferson presidency for Champagne diplomacy. “Ah yes, mousseaux does have its place. In France I learned that the cacophonous opening of a Champagne bottle, sometimes with the flick of a saber, can be an effective way to commemorate occasions and seal friendships in memorable fashion,” said the former president. “The ceremony of Champagne, of course, was not a custom known in the District of Columbia before I first took office. But oh, how many wigs were undone when I first introduced this tart, truth bearing serum to our stuffy state dinners.
“But it has caught on well, I daresay; for since then my dear friends James Madison and James Monroe have faithfully stocked the President’s House on Pennsylvania Avenue with at least five hundred new bottles each year. You see, they have both been wise enough to retain me as their wine consultant,” he added, with feigned mischief in his eyes. “In France, wine consultants are called sommeliers. At the age of eighty, which I reached this past April, I might very well be the oldest sommelier in recorded history.”
We marveled, not so much because of the privilege of being hosted by this towering yet self effacing figure of a man, but more by his seemingly boundless store of energy and enthusiasm, putting most of us less than half his age to shame. But Mr. Jefferson quickly changed the subject, raising his glass to say, “To new friends and old friends… to our distinguished visitors from Georgia, to Monsieur Dorsay, the producer of this exquisite Champagne, and to Monsieur Louis his trusted homme d’affaires.” We shall never forget that unusual toast, citing individuals we were never to meet, yet whose acquaintance were nonetheless met through the sharing of this penetrating wine. Was it the wine’s spirit putting forth these suggestions, or Mr. Jefferson’s eloquence? Indubitably, it was both.
“I have further good news,” the President announced. “Besides conversation pertaining to one of our shared interest, the cultivation of grape vines, we can look forward to a dinner prepared by the visiting Honoré Julien, who served as the Presidential Chef de Cuisine during my eight years in residence on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Chef arrived only last week on a busman’s holiday, for I have asked him to share cooking recipes for some new varieties of vegetables we are growing with Mrs. Fossett, who has been in charge of our kitchen at Monticello since my retirement from public life in 1809.
“Chef Julien has been spending more time with dirt on his hands than he is accustomed to, but I knew that he would not be able to resist the chance to experiment with produce from our garden. There are few things growing under the sun that great chefs like Monsieur Julien are unaware of, but in Monticello we grow over two hundred and fifty types of vegetables, and at least thirty classifications of fruit, at any given time here on the plantation. I admit that much of this is for academic reasons; but tonight, it will most definitely be gastronomic!”
While Mr. Colbert replenished our glasses, Mr. Jefferson proposed, “now, do you enjoy a hunt for treasures?” Responding with pleasure, we were led down a stairwell to view both parts of the Monticello Cellar – one for storing bottles of wine and beer, the other mostly for casks (and the fermenting) of beer and cider – where we were encouraged to explore and help make a selection for our dinner. Needless to say, with our expertise relegated to the produce of our own state, we were not prepared to choose without the guidance of the nation’s first wine connoisseur, and his advice was graciously provided.
“The number of treasures kept here,” he stated while guiding us through the cool, candlelit bottle cellar, “has whittled down considerably in recent years. I may no longer be quite as afflicted with a disease of acquisition, yet I still hold wine as a necessary of life.” He laughed at his next anecdote, recounting how John Adams – his old friend, sometime rival (and our country’s second president) – had occasionally implored him “to stop all wine shipments except for the Bordeaux, for mercy’s sake, or you shall be ruined!” Mr. Jefferson added, “I can no sooner cease inquisitions into new and adventurous wines that I can of seedlings of ornamental flowers, useful vegetables or more practical fruits.”
As we stood before a row of oddly shaped bottles lying to one side, Mr. Jefferson continued his narrative with a wave of his hand: “My fellow vignerons, I bring you to bottles of Catawba, from the Ohio Valley as well as the great state of New York; next to them, bottles of Scuppernong from North Carolina, which I believe is similar to your Georgia grown Mother Vineyard Muscadine that I have enjoyed so much. These may not be the finest wines in the world, but they are ours, borne of American soil. My palate is a democracy, for I admit to having little patience with those whose tastes are enslaved by a tyranny of sameness.
“I can usher you through time and the most distant space without leaving this room,” he explained. “Like here, in this corner, where I keep sweet wines made from Muscat grapes, raisined under the sun; wines still being made today in the same fashion appreciated centuries before by the ancient philosophers. Imagine the legions of Roman foot soldiers, roaming the earth as conquerors, but finding themselves conquered and absorbed in turn by each new culture; and you can understand why it is easy to develop a taste for wines such as these in my cellar.
“I also confess that my tastes have recently evolved well beyond that of great crus of France, or famous growths of Germany, for reasons of economy; yet never before have I been more satisfied,” he said, while pointing to bottles of Vin de Perpignan, Bellet, and Muscat de Rivesaltes from Southern France, Albaflor from the island of Mallorca, a Muscat from the Grecian island of Samos, Pacaret from Spain, Carcavellos from Portugal, and Lachrima Christi, Tokai, and Eleatico from Italy.
Leading us to another corner, Mr. Jefferson wiped the dust from an even more primitively shaped bottle. “See this wine? It is called Nibiule, seldom seen outside its native Piemonte in Italy. This wine is as brisk as the Champagne in our glasses now, yet has an astringency recalling the famous red wines of Bordeaux. Yet when I open a bottle, I also think of the deep golden brown colors of the city of Turin, the muscular currents in the river Po, and even the nightingales that sang outside my window when first I sipped this wine. That is what a wine such as Nibiule will do to even the most unimaginative of men. These are my memories, of course. As for yourselves, you may very well find in it the silkiness and sting reminiscent of sweetly aged Madeira, which as fellow Southerners I am sure you well know." In Madeira, we did share a fondness, and it was good to find a common language despite the tremendous gulf between our experience as Georgia farmers and our former president's experience of the entire world.
“My years of service in France," continued Mr. Jefferson, the tremelo of his voice echoing off the whitewashed walls of the underground chamber, "explains the predominance of French wines in this cellar, for France is as much the cradle of great wine as it is of many of our ideals of government, notions of philosophy, and of course, fashion and cuisine. We learn much from France; although we still have much to learn from our own vast continent, which is why the first order of business when I entered the highest office was to commission the successful, historical expedition led by fellow Virginians Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. I am so proud of the knowledge they have brought home to us -- a different yet far richer vein of nourishment to the mind and body than what we inherit from Europe. But please do not mention this to Monsieur Julien tonight, for he might still be under the impression that France leads America in the civilized arts, whereas I think it is the opposite will ultimately prove to be true.
“Still, if anything has come from my long, unrequited affair with France, it is the conviction that wine is not something drunk for inebriation, nor to just wash down food. Wine is a food in itself. A la bonne cuisine, if you will, as wine sustains both mind and body; and even at its simplest, the soul as well. I have no scientific proof, but I am convinced that someday wine will be found to be the reason why people in France live longer lives than people in the rest of the world. It is because good wine is, or rather should be, very much a part of every healthy diet. As essential to our nourishment as the bread we bake, the cheese we monger, our game and fish, lettuce and peas, and the livestock and poultry we endeavor to raise to our satisfaction.
“But my point must be qualified: when I speak of wine, I speak of good wine. The mark of a civilized nation is production of quality, not mediocrity; and lest you think otherwise, price has nothing to do with quality. I believe quality to be the measure of the grape and land that can be tasted in a wine, and how much of himself that a winemaker puts into it. As it is, life is too short to drink mediocre wine; and someday the efforts of America’s vignerons, such as yourselves, may inspire even the French. It may take another two hundred years, but the teacher may well nigh become the pupil!
“But until then… ah, now we are here... I invite you to choose from among my few remaining bottles of Bordeaux. This is a 1784 Margau; next to it, 1779 and 1784 Hautbrion,” which he pronounced as oh-bree-on. “For Hautbrion there is a special, almost private place in my heart; and these are two of the finest vintages of the last century. Nature’s God smiled upon the Bordelaise in 1779 and 1784. Hautbrion is a Bordeaux château located in a township called Graves, taking its name from deep beds of gravelly soil in those vineyards – perfect for the black, thick skinned grapes cultivated there."
At that point, we heard a bell sounding discreetly from a distance up the stairs. Said Mr. Jefferson, “Let us cease our mental travels and repair with due haste towards the Dining Room; for it is now three o’clock, and it wouldn’t do for the master of the house to be late to his own ceremony. Today we shall shall dine differently. In collaboration with my daughter Martha, and granddaughter Mary, Chef Julien has contrived a menu in which wines will be served with each course, à la française. It is also the custom at Monticello for our entire family to partake of the main meal, all together in the Dining Room, but today most of them will be dining separately because of the preponderance of wines, which you shall enjoy with just Martha and myself.
“Your choice of wine for our final course is difficult, is it not? So may I prevail upon you by suggesting this bottle of 1787 Laffitte for our dinner?” We lifted the heavy, dusty, manfully shouldered bottle in his hands, bearing our host’s personal mark in whitewash, Th. J. Upon our agreement, Mr. Jefferson winked and said, "Your taste is better than you know."
Passing once more through the Parlor, with its multitude of portraits of great men (we recognized George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Newton) hanging as high as eighteen feet up on the walls, we entered the lower ceilinged Dining Room where Mr. Colbert awaited us, standing against a strikingly deep yellow colored wall. Mrs. Randolph also greeted us with a smile, standing behind her chair at the table. Taking our seats following her signal, we remembered being told of Mr. Jefferson’s penchant for inventions; and so we started the dinner conversation by inquiring of his famous “wine dumbwaiters.”
“If you look very closely to each side of the fireplace,” he pointed with two open hands, “you might notice the doors to two boxes, which are well concealed when not in usage. I designed the elevating shelves within these boxes to bring wine directly up from the Cellar, eliminating unnecessary interruption should we find the inevitable need for replenishment. Martha and Mr. Colbert are more familiar with the Monticello wine inventory than I am. As my guests, I invite you to enjoy any of the wines below throughout your stay, simply by communicating with either one of them.”
“Is Monticello always so generous with its guests?” we asked, knowing that Mr. Jefferson's stream of visitors was famously unrelenting. “One thing I know about gentleman farmers from Georgia,” Mr. Jefferson laughingly said, “is that moderation is part of their nature. Forgive me for saying this, but no one shall ever be in the league of my good friend, the Marquis de Lafayette. After his last visit, our stock of drinking red wines was so depleted, I needed to send out an emergency call to my agents for immediate replenishment... I have no such fear with the two of you.”
At that moment Mr. Colbert began serving the first course, appearing almost magically on shelves on another side of the room, built into a revolving wall: a classic oxtail consommé à la française, served in bowls of stark white French porcelain set upon intricately painted Chinese show plates. We were pleased to see the golden colored wine prepared for service with the soup by the white gloved Mr. Colbert was our own wine from Georgia. Mr. Colbert had it properly chilled and decanted into a cut crystal vessel, after being piped from the thirty gallon cask we had our own man deliver the week prior to our arrival to Monticello. This was our family’s specialty Muscadine wine, vinified from the indigenous American grape also known as Scuppernong. We had never tasted it in such a grand manner, of course, which only seemed to heighten its quality to our senses.
We watched Mr. Jefferson first raise the wine to his nose, and then sip with practiced curiosity. “It is sweet and strong, like syrup from a tree entwined with honeysuckle, and very much alive,” he observed, “and also perfectly suited to Chef Honoré’s beef, onion and mirepoix laden soup, which he tends to cook down to a natural sweetness of its own, balanced by a perception of sea salt. In Washington I always used to say that if anyone can take ten gallons of perfectly good, meaty stew and turn it into a tiny puddle of intense, clear broth, it is the President’s Chef. Not a model of economy, mind you, but I cannot complain about the excellence of his taste buds, and I believe he would also say the same thing about your wine.
“So what can you tell me of your wine’s lineage?” Mr. Jefferson inquired. Repeating the description of our plantation life shared earlier in the day with Captain Bacon, we added these salient facts: how our grandparents were among the families arriving from North Carolina to the foothills of Northeast Georgia, once the domain of native Cherokee tribes had begun to abate; and how they had brought along with them heirloom cuttings from the legendary “Mother Vine,” growing on Roanoke Island off the Carolina coast.
“The Mother Vine is now said to be at least two hundred years old,” we told Mr. Jefferson, “and its two feet wide trunk and canes, which climb through surrounding shrubs and the tops of cedars for nearly a half a square acre, are most certainly proof of that. Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have found this very same plant growing during his first expedition of Roanoke in 1584.”
With that, Mr. Jefferson took a second, more generous draught, and said, “Oh, this is a wild domestic wine to be for sure, but not without its own breeding – something I thought even before knowing its compelling history. But please, do tell, how do you keep your wine from exuding the rough, bitter, coarse taste that I have found in most other wines made from our native American grapes?”
“Our own instinct for flavors of moderation,” was our explanation; and at greater length than what we have recorded here, we spoke of how experience with making wine from these vines led us to practice severe winter pruning of canes, all the way down to the vine’s stump, and the cropping of clusters in the summer just after the berries turn from a hard green to a greenish-gold. “We learned long ago that when vines are allowed to grow unchecked hither and yon, the result is loose, excessive, uneven sized bunches of uneven quality; and Muscadine is one vine that loves to climb where it pleases, no matter what we may try to do with it. “
In our winemaking practices, we went on to explain, we also practice moderation. Whereas most wines made from Muscadine, or Scuppernong, are fermented with the grape’s infamously thick skin and large, bitter seeds, as well as a good dose of alcoholic spirits, we prefer a more gentle approach: beginning with an immediate separation of the juice from the solid mass of skins and seeds while we are treading upon them with bare feet, followed by patient fermentation in old wood casks -- which might take several months, even outside in the warmth of the sun during the following spring. “Our practices do not reflect any genius,” we admitted, “but rather a history of more error than success, and commonsense of the sort that might do Benjamin Franklin proud.”
"Then to you, to your sensible decision to learn from rather than repeating an error, and to the generous Mother of Vines, I salute!” exclaimed Mr. Jefferson, tapping his glass to ours. Turning to his butler, he asked, “Mr. Colbert, please send Monsieur Honoré out to the dining room to meet our guests, if he isn’t overly inconvenienced, and prepare for him a glass of this beautifully untamed Muscadine wine. I shall also like to ask what he plans to do with those early ripening tomatas plucked from kitchen garden.”
“Tomatas?” we could not help but ask, not ashamed to admit our ignorance of such a fruit. “I am not surprised that you do not know of the tomato,” said Mr. Jefferson, “for it is an herbaceous, not entirely attractive plant first discovered in South America, but unaccountably grown strictly for ornamental purposes here in the states as well as in Europe, even though it has been over a century since its introduction to the Northern Hemisphere. When Captain Bacon brought you out to our garden earlier today, you had probably seen our tomato bushes, tied to stakes and putting forth silky skinned fruits of numerous shapes and colors.
“It was in Washington when I first began the slow process of convincing my own cook, Mrs. Fossett, that its fruit does not come from a poisonwood tree of the Bible, as so commonly believed; and in fact, the tomato is perfectly delicious – as miraculously sweet as your wine, but tasting more of a vegetable despite its resemblance to a monstrously large berry.
“I am proud to say that we have made much progress. Last summer we enjoyed a generous crop of a reddish, amusingly flat and irregular variety called the Spanish tomato, which we used to take liberties with a recipe for gaspacho, the traditional cold soup of Andalusia in Spain. Our version calls for a fine mincing of the fruit, which we flavor with lemon, garlic, chopped cucumber and chile pepper. It was so good, I would not be surprised if a hundred years from now no recipe for gaspacho will be without the tomato.
“We have distant cousin named Mary Randolph, now living in Washington, who while growing up was tutored by my father, Peter Jefferson. Mary, as it were, is also Martha’s sister-in-law, and she is writing a cookery book (The Virginia House-wife, 1824) as we speak, which we understand will contain numerous recipes for the tomato. Martha, would you care to tell our friends about one of the recipes Mary has shared with you – the one she is calling catsup?”
Mrs. Randolph’s response: “Of course, Mr. Jefferson… catsup is a purée of the tomato, to which we add vinegar, cane sugar and crushed allspice. The condiment has an Oriental accent, but is quite good spooned over grilled meats and, even better yet, the type of thinly sliced, crunchy potato frite, cooked in hot oil, that Chef Julien often prepared for us at the President’s House.”
“The combining of a blood red Oriental sauce and French style potatoes,” Mr. Jefferson pondered. “Can you imagine something like this ever becoming a staple in the United States? We have seen stranger things…”
Then a fair, white haired but hale, rather melancholy looking man in a starched, spotless white smock, and reddish burn of sun on his cheeks, approached the table; and Mr. Jefferson heartily introduced us to “Honoré Julien, who long ago consented to leave the comforts of his home in France in order to cook for kings, Congressmen, generals, diplomats, several presidents past and present, and evidently, scoundrels from all walks of life, along the banks of the Potomac.”
To which the Chef replied, while accepting his glass of Muscadine from Mr. Colbert and bowing, “Monsieur Président, Madame Randolph, madame et monsieur Géorgie, bon après-midi… the pleasure is mine.” Turning to Mr. Jefferson, “If you are curious about the tomatas, sir, they were used to quite good effect in the consommé you are enjoying as we speak. If you will now excuse me, there is a second course to finish.” And with an expressive arch of his greyish-white brow and another deeply respectful bow, he took his leave. “Thank you, my friend!” Mr. Jefferson called, as the Chef hurriedly departed.
“Such is the respect I retain from someone who has been feeding my curiosity in the arts culinaire for over twenty two years,” mused Mr. Jefferson, almost to himself. “Each morning during our years in Washington, the Presidential Butler – my dear, departed Etienne Lemaire, who was himself an accomplished chef – would take a cart with Chef Julien through the markets of Georgetown. I, myself, had accompanied them on a few occasions, observing how they poked and prodded their way in search of the freshest produce; including, sometimes, the underestimated tomato. Being Frenchmen, Etienne and Honoré would have it no other way; but Georgetown is not Paris, so I suspect it was not always a satisfactory expedition for them, and I often wondered if their diligent efforts were fully appreciated by our guests in the President’s House.
“Yet it is here in the Virginia countryside that I believe we are achieving the culinary ideal -- a gastronomic amour de soi, or abiding self-respect, to borrow from Rousseau’s phraseology. For here at Monticello, our sustenance is not characterized by farm-to-market, but rather by farm-to-table: a sufficiency of self that I fear is quickly becoming a casualty of our own making, in our quest for capitalized rather than productive society. Although without a doubt, most of my political colleagues today would argue that production of capital itself, rather than foodstuffs, is the key to a healthy economy. I have been accused, especially by our Federalist friends, of thinking backwards on this. They call me agrarian -- a compliment to me, an insult to them -- a hopeless libertarian, even obstructionist. I do not fear the labels, but I fear the path our country has taken.
“These are the concerns I have taken here to Monticello in my retirement years. I worry for the true independence of Americans just as I worry for acceptance of the tomato and other unsung fruits, such as cranberry and whortleberry, as well as for vanishing timber like white pine, copper beech and hemlock – trees I fear are being taken for granted as they are cleared from the land, often for little reason apart from the fact that they are there for the taking. But I will say this: if anyone can show the world how to respect the lowly tomato, Monsieur Julian can!”
Warming to the occasion, we raised our own glasses to Mr. Jefferson, saying: “If anyone can show the world how to respect wine as a food – something that belongs on every table alongside the tomato – it is you, sir, and we propose a toast of our own. The ideas you illuminate on a daily basis are like once in a lifetime epiphanies for the rest of us. No deed seems to pass as insignificant for you; and by recognizing merit in what we do each day, you draw attention to a profundity the world would otherwise never know. So we say bravo to you, and here is to the greatness of the small deeds, the ugly tomato, the humblest of wines, and to the best of friends!”
We did not believe for one second that the Sage of Monticello needed a farming couple from the Georgia hills to clarify his mission in life. But the agreement of sentiments helped raise our table to a higher plane, and the rest of our meal progressed in this fashion: touching upon minutest matters of our shared interests – primarily farming, wines and viticulture – as if they were of no less importance than issues of government and diplomacy. And indeed, they were to us.
Although Mr. Jefferson is quite the connoisseur of all foods, he spoke of how many of his dinners at Monticello of late have consisted primarily of vegetables, and fewer and fewer meats, as he has made a conscientious effort to translate his horticultural obsessions into culinary practicalities. “Vegetables constitute my principal diet,” said Mr. Jefferson, “and I believe Honoré’s next two dishes may very well convince you to do the same.”
True to his prediction, we were enthralled by the subsequent course of startling simplicity: plump, round, short grains of rice cooked in chicken stock, butter, aromatic thyme and pungent, toothsome, cone shaped mushrooms; over which Mr. Colbert poured a green colored olive oil, good enough to drink by itself. The accompanying wine: Blanquette de Limoux –- a softly dry, slightly sparkling (a quality Mr. Jefferson defined as pétillant), humus and sweet apple scented white wine, with such an affinity for this rice dish, we were momentarily tempted to pour the limpid liquid over the dish as well.
“Our recent spate of rain and humid days has been good for wildflowers, and my trusty servants tell me that morel mushrooms are sprouting generously in Monticello’s native woods,” Mr. Jefferson volunteered, “but it is the rice in this dish – a variety known as aborio in Northern Italy, where I found it – that makes the more telling tale, for it may very well become a carriage for positive social change in our country.”
“In what way?” we asked, wondering how a grain of rice might incite a revolution. Sipping his Limoux, Mr. Jefferson elaborated: “I began to bring in varieties of short grained rice from Europe quite some time ago because they are better suited to growing in dry upland environments; and also because Europeans consider these types of rice to be of superior quality, while spurning what is produced in our own country. My other hope was that someday we might reduce our dependence on the long grain varieties of rice suitable to malaria-ridden swamplands, typifying the lowlands of the Carolinas. There, you find an industry that has only remained solvent through the unrelenting expansion of slave labor, and unconscionable treatment suffered by slaves to sustain this culture.” “Something,” we were almost ashamed to add, “that also plays a major economic role in the low country of Georgia.”
“Alas,” said Mr. Jefferson, “I have been unsuccessful in encouraging this industry, especially in light of the fact that importation of foreign cultivars is still banned by our government; and in fact, is punishable by death – one of the more despicable examples of misuse of government. Yes, I secretly carried the seeds of aborio in my pocket at great personal risk; yet here we sit, thoroughly enjoying this decidedly delicious rice!”
After clearing the shallow dishes that held this most felonious rice, Mr. Colbert immediately filled the empty spaces with our next dish: a bedding of an unusually long, bitter (tasting of peppercorn and walnuts), frilly edged green lettuce, along with little halves of sweet and tart, bright yellow berries and two colors of nasturtium blossoms, all drenched in a very dark, wine-like vinegar sweetened by onions and chopped tarragon. The piquant clash of flavors both shocked and pleased us.
“My friends from Georgia,” said Mr. Jefferson with a degree of drama, “allow me to be the first to acquaint you with the raw taste of the tomato. This yellow variety was once erroneously called ‘love apple.’ Does it not excite the mind and the palate, especially when wrapped with the leaves of rockette on your plate? In Southern Italy, rockette is called rucola, although I have also heard it called rugula – the Italians have a way of never agreeing with themselves. Whatever you wish to call them, we have found that these nourishing wild lettuces, springing up so freely in plentitude in Italian meadows, are just as accommodating in American soil, thriving under the Virginian sun, as I am sure they would in any state of the union.”
Mr. Jefferson’s butler suddenly appeared in the room with a tall, graceful, brown colored bottle. “Here, here, Mr. Colbert, please bring along the petite sized glasses for our next wine, a German hock, made from a highly prized, fragrant grape I have heard tell called Weisser. This is from the vineyard of the castle Johannisberg, in the river region called the Rheingau. Here, legend has it, the Weisser plants are always the first to bud, just as the blinding snow melts away from the majestic slopes along the river.”
As Mr. Colbert tumbled the gleaming, green-golden wine into our glasses, Mr. Jefferson continued, “Ah, thank you for personally bringing this bottle from the ice house, my dear man. Aristocratic hock such as this always needs a good chill. My friends, please let its sweet and sharp taste wash down the sweet, sharp and bitter flavors of your salad. Now do you see why I say wine is a food?"
At this point, we began to wonder if we should be brazen enough to ask for pen, fountain and paper so that each new, fascinating taste and idea could be recorded. We did not do so, of course, but instead chatted in leisurely fashion deep into the night (the following day, Mrs. Randolph, as it were, was kind enough to furnish us with the names of the dishes and wines, written out by her daughter). There were, in fact, several interims of complete silence, as was Mr. Jefferson’s wont, while we savored our courses as quietly as if we were in a church, alone with our prayers; which only reinforced our memories, allowing us time to give pause for thought. At that point we had sat at the table for over an hour, and it would be another two before we left it; for surely, the length of time helped our minds avoid the deleterious effects of the numerous bottles. Good wine and company is indeed civilizing.
The hock was followed by the first of three wines from the Burgundy region of France, which Mr. Jefferson was apt to refer to as Bourgogne, pronouncing it as boar-goyn. First, a clear, pale golden colored, cool and dry tasting Meursault; served just before the arrival of dumplings made with fresh spinach and cheese, resting upon a shallow pool of clear hen broth. “In Meursault only white wines are made,” Mr. Jefferson related, “as there is too much stone in the soil for proper growing of red wine grapes. On such slight circumstances depends the condition of man.” And for a good minute or more we observed a silence, absorbing the wine’s subtle taste of stones and citrus, accompanied only by echoing taps of our spoons along the flat bottom of the bowls.
At this stage of our dinner we seized the opportunity to ask of Mr. Jefferson’s own ventures into grape growing. “The heart has a mind of its own,” he began. “I believe that sooner or later every serious lover of wine seeks to plant his own grapes, and even make his own wine. My first venture as a vigneron began with a selection of Vitis vinifera, the European family of grapes, planted in Paris at my home on the Champs-Élysées during my service as Minister to France, some thirty-five years ago. Paris was unsuitably cold, of course, for the full ripening of wine grapes, and the results were anemic. No matter – I was not so easily discouraged in those days.
“In 1807 I brought here to Monticello rooted cuttings of no less than twenty-four different varieties of European grapes, and planted exactly two hundred and eighty-seven vines in a fashion faithful to viticultural practices that I had observed in France. The entire vineyard expired, and has since been replanted to hardier native American vines, including your Vitis scuppernong, which our trusted foremen, Gardener John and Great George, have permanently trained on espalier style fences. While the American vines are happily thriving, over the graves of the French, our cellar fermentations have been relegated to beer and ciders rather than estate grown wines. I am afraid to say, at this point in my life, that the task of finding the scientific solution to the root rot making American soils so inhospitable to vines from Europe shall be left to future generations. Even a scientist must defer to decisions of Mother Nature, and right now Mother Nature says non to Vitis vinifera in Virginia.”
With a distant look in his eyes betraying the disappointment of his viticultural forays, he continued to reflect: “Still, I have no doubt that in these United States smarter men than I can, and will, produce European style wines from our soils, and it will happen much sooner than even our friends in France might expect. What is there to stop us? We have everything the French have – the correct terroir, the seasonal climates, and perhaps much more. We could make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe; not exactly the same kinds of wine, but doubtless just as good, maybe better.
“In the meantime, Mr. Colbert, let us pick up our spirits by beginning our next wine -- still another Bourgogne, but this time a red!" In ready compliance, the butler poured a pale, almost transparent and jewel-like, brick colored wine that tasted sprightly on the tongue, and seemed so magnificently perfumed that Mr. Jefferson blurted out, “Oh, my petite jolie brune… my prettiest ‘little black haired girl.’ Please enjoy this very famous red, which hails from a famous vineyard called Vougeot.
"At this point,” declared Mr. Jefferson, stopping to breathe the wine in through his lips, “we need not bend down to our knees. But it is well known that Napoleon Bonaparte, the General who would be Emperor, ordered his troops to salute the ancient walls surrounding the vineyard of Vougeot each time they passed by. I hold it that Vougeot, as well as Beaune and Chambertin, are the three red wines of finest quality from the region of Burgundy. Because of the delicacy of these wines, I have always gone through great pains and expense to see that they are transported only in the best season, as they do not withstand great heat or great cold during their voyage across the sea.
“The Vougeot’s mere presence at our table is miracle enough – the bidding for the hands of these beautés in the annual charitable auction in Beaune has grown quite fierce – and so let us see what dish Chef Julien has planned to honor it with. I have asked him to surprise us.”
We were indeed surprised, as the Chef himself re-entered the Dining Room carrying a large, ornate, covered crock, setting it upon a sturdy, portable table attached to casters, and wheeled closer to the table by Mr. Colbert. The butler then raised the lid to unveil a steaming stew of veal morsels. No one spoke, but rather savored the anticipated taste from the emanating smells and gently ringing notes of the butler’s silver ladle against the white bone china bowls. Oh, the culinary drama.
All along, standing beside Mr. Colbert, Chef Julien sustained his air of near nonchalance, hands held casually behind his back, while explaining in his melodious, French accented voice: “Madames et monsieurs, I present to you this dish that combines the Parisian tradition of veal braised for hours with the most tender assemblage of fines herbs, carrots, early peas, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, and slivers of celeriac and beets at our disposal in the famous ‘hanging’ gardens of Monticello, thanks be to God, the rich soil, nourishing sun and rain He has provided here in Virginia. Even in France we are not always so blessed.
“In this pot-a-feu you will find that it is the use of tendron – the cartilaginous, ribbed portion of the veal – that turns this broth to lightest silk yet feel of flesh in the texture, necessary to match the light and delicate yet meaty nature of Vougeot rouge. I call this ‘French-American Cuisine,’ or shall we just say ‘Virginia Cuisine?’ Whatever is decided, it would be in long overdue hommage to the bounty of the New World. To you, Monsieur Jefferson, my apologies once again for turning you away from the persuasion of the pure vegetable diet. But I am sure you will be pleased all the same. Bon appétit!”
With that, we sat shocked still once again, to witness Mr. Jefferson rise from his chair, quietly clap, smile, and bow; and in response, seeing Chef Julien bow even more deeply in turn. Will the world ever know the devoted respect shared between a great President and Chef? Will future generations know that it was in the botanical laboratory called Monticello where one of the first, truly definitive, sophisticated American cuisines was born? Needless to say, this is why we have finally determined to tell our story, as best we can remember. Although the “best,” we soon learned, was still to come.
As Mr. Colbert poured the next wine – our third Bourgogne, a red wine labeled Beaune, which we found similar to the Vougeot, but sturdier and fuller to the taste – we were surprised to see put before us a dish of sturgeon, swimming in a butter sauce thickened with wild field mushrooms, veal glace, bits of wood smoked bacon and rosemary needles, and the unmistakable scent of red wine artfully cooked into the liquid, because even we were not accustomed to the service of fish following a meat course.
“This is what I love about the gastronomic courage of the French,” Mr. Jefferson declared. “Honoré remains faithful to the rule of serving a fuller bodied red wine after a red wine with a lighter body, but he does not think twice about serving a fish with a manly red such as this Beaune because he has placed this white fleshed fish in the context of ingredients, such as mushrooms, pungent herbs and red wine infused glace, which make this dish more appropriate for red wine than for white. He has made a fish course taste fuller than a meat course.” And indeed, we found that if there was ever a match that was meant to be, it was this robustly prepared sturgeon and equally robust Beaune.
The next course was a sort of long, curling, ribbon shaped macaroni in a lavish, creamy, thyme scented brown sauce, coating long slivers of rabbit meat. “Mrs. Fossett,” the President spoke in reference to the ranking officer in Monticello’s kitchen, “has indulged my appetite for this Italian staple by making good use of a machine of my own invention, that flattens the macaroni into sheets of more consistent width. Otherwise the serving of macaroni in Monticello might be as rare as Christmas.
“Now Mr. Colbert returns, and he shall pour one of my favorite red wines from Italy, called Artiminiano, which comes from one of the regions of Tuscany, known as Chianti. The name of the grape used to make this wine translates as ‘blood of Jove.’ I believe that my favorite red wine from Italy, called Montepulciano, epitomizes the great strength and asperity – similar to the way the heat of the Mediterranean sun rushes to the head, like the taste of a liquid never brewed – inferred by the grape’s godly nomenclature.
“In Chianti, my merchant tells me, they are starting to blend other grapes to lighten, or shall we say ‘domesticate,’ the ‘blood of Jove.’ He also tells me that more and more of the wines sold as Chianti are not even grown within the time honored boundaries constituting Chianti. Such is the sad state of affairs when wines become popular; and greed supplants artistry and, worse, honesty... leaving a bad taste in the mouth. All we can hope for is that wines like this – not so muscular as Bordeaux, not delicate like Burgundy, but very much… Chianti – survives the more pernicious instincts of men in commerce.”
Our table topics were by no means restricted to farming, wine and cuisine. As we recall, there was a little break between courses when talk of Tuscany turned to the difficulty of separating tyranny from humanitarianism in the history of the arts, particularly in respect to the power of the Medici family that we had learned of in our own readings of history.
Mr. Colbert interrupted this discourse upon entering the Dining Room bearing a round, high sided dish with a protruding crust: clearly an English style pot pie, only with more of a French style pastry crust, flaky, light and buttery. We found it plump with the meat of pigeon and pig’s ear, discreet chunks of potato, miniature cubes of carrots, and pillowy soft green and white lima beans.
“Ah, I see that Honoré has ‘improved’ upon the traditional meat pie,” Mr. Jefferson observed – “a far cry from what we were raised on in Edgehill, where my oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, now lives. While Mr. Colbert serves us our pie, let me do the honor of presenting our next wine: a humble red called Cahors, also known as the ‘black wine’ of South-West France.
“I cannot describe Cahors as a refined wine, but it is as savory as meat pie – or cassoulet, as natives of Cahors would have it – with a sort of trencherman's earth stained strength. Its other virtue is that it is cheap, which I mean in a very positive way. The most satisfying wines are those that deliver flavor with thrift. This is why I have always fought for reduction of taxes on wine imports, for the sake of making the civilizing aspects of wine more accessible to the general populace. No nation is drunken, I say, where wine is cheap; and none sober where the dearness of the wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.”
Somehow the discussion of wrongs steered us towards another subject of mutual concern, as farmers in increasingly less rural areas: the preservation of trees unwittingly driven towards demise. “When I was President I wished I was a despot that I might save many of these beautiful, noble trees native of our land. The unnecessary felling of just one, perhaps the growth of centuries, seemed to me a crime little short of murder.” Discussing the great variety of species we observed upon entering the Monticello estate, he reflected, “I am too old to plant for my own gratification, but I shall do so now for posterity.
“Speaking of which, now let us now turn to a wine that may indeed be one remembered for posterity: the 1787 Laffitte that we have carried up from the cellar together, and which I see Mr. Colbert has carefully transferred from bottle to decanter while we have been gnawing away at the politics of trees.” Observing the solemnity of the moment, we watched the white gloved butler pour from the decanter into our glasses.
How shall we describe this Bordeaux? There is a popular English poet, John Keats, who tragically died before his twenty-seventh year not long before (in 1821). Whether or not he died satisfied with his lot, perhaps he, too, had once experienced the dizzying power of Laffitte, for he wrote
O, for a draught of vintage! That hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
The poet also sang of a purple-stained mouth, and if at that point during our dinner in Monticello our lips and chins were indeed impolitely smeared, we are sure God granted forgiveness. “Mr. Jefferson,” we asked, “would it be possible that a wine of such sturdy perfection could be even better a hundred years from now?”
Without hesitation he turned to us and said, “What is the point? It is good tonight, and we may not awaken tomorrow. I fully intend to consume my few remaining bottles of 1787 well before I meet the Creator. Otherwise, should a bottle or two somehow escape a journey up from the Monticello cellar, some fool one hundred and fifty years from now will pay a thousand times more than this wine is worth on the scale of human pleasure, probably at an auction attended by other fools, just because it says ‘Laffitte,’ or because it bears my initials,” he prophesied, while pointing to Th. J. on the emptied bottle, standing on its plain pewter coaster.
“Oh, I can imagine how it might happen, say at the end of the next century. There would be a roomful of people, so-called connoisseurs of wine, waiting to taste a drop each of this 1787. A smug but officious butler will transport the bottle in its cradle into the room, trip and fall, and what little left in the bottle will go seeping through the shards. And it will serve them all right, for even a grand vin for the ages is never meant to be coddled or ‘collected.’
“The only wine ever worth such worship was already consumed at the banquet in Cana, if such a banquet ever took place. I might be roused from my grave, knowing wine of any sort is obscenely dealt and traded for reasons other than why we are here tonight, joined by common affection for the pleasures of wine, food, conversation and friendship.”
Moments later, the Dining Room door swung open once again as Chef Julien entered followed by a tiny, black skinned, grey haired woman carrying a small, covered, oblong shaped china bowl by its double handles. Behind her came still another Negro woman; this one slightly taller, with loose, tightly tied, grey speckled hair, walking with her hands clasped over her apron, with black, almost gypsy eyes turned to the floor. Ceremoniously bringing up the rear, Mr. Colbert solemnly hoisted an oversized platter bearing a roasted leg of lamb, placing it upon the movable side table alongside the china bowl and cutting utensils.
“Hear, hear,” clapped Mr. Jefferson, waving towards the tiny older woman, “it pleases me to introduce Mrs. Edith Hern Fossett, who along with her assistant standing beside her, Miss Fanny, was ably trained by Chef Julien and Etienne Lemaire during our years at the President’s House. If you will, Monsieur Honoré, would you please tell our friends from Georgia what you, Martha and Mary have planned for our main course?”
“Mr. President, it is my pleasure to say that Edith and Mademoiselle Fanny have butchered this beautiful gigot, or little leg of spring lamb, of perfect size following the many courses in tonight’s dinner. After marinating the leg with one of the master’s bottles of hock – first, making sure to taste it, of course, to ascertain its soundness – as well as bay laurel, juniper, peppercorns and mirepoix, the gigot was roasted à la française, preserving a rosy pink color at the center.
“Mrs. Fossett also carries the most unusual side dish; unusual, she tells me, at least for Monticello. As you know, I have been spending more time in the garden than in the kitchen. Thus, I became determined to make use of three varieties of legumes, known as lentils, that Mrs. Fossett and Miss Fanny tell me have been less appreciated than other legumes favored by the family here at Monticello – the haricots verts, scarlet runners, and the little white kidney beans that Mrs. Fossett prepares in her delicious brown sauce oignon. Yet for me, the tiny, flat lentil beans are just as noble, and I picked three in sufficient quantity from the garden: red lentils, which I believe are commonly eaten in Persia, yellow lentils from the British colony of India, and then my sentimental choice, the green puy from République française. Since I could not decide upon which color I liked best, I combined all three and cooked them with salt pork, a rendering of stock from the lamb bones, pearl sized white onions, parsley and lemon scented thyme."
But please,” added the Chef, as he finished placing the pink colored meat sliced from the bone by Mr. Colbert onto each plate, followed by spoonfuls of the aromatic lentils, “do not let us keep you from your pleasures. Bon appetit!"
After a few minutes of conversation, following the clearing of our cleanly finished main course plates, Mr. Colbert entered the room with short, narrow glasses and a bottle of a wine also long favored by both the Jeffersons in Virginia and our own family in Georgia: Malmsey, from the island of Madeira -- always a liquified essence of caramel, cream, sun dried fruits, honey, sea salt and citrus.
Once the multiple sensatione of the Malmsey were allowed to wash up over our palates -- like gently foaming waves along Carribean shores -- Mr. Colbert returned with still another set of small glasses, and poured a light golden colored wine that Mr. Jefferson called Fillotte: a sweet wine from the Bordeaux region of Barsac, tasting of honeyed and vanillin iced cream, balanced by the sharpness of candied lemon and density of dried apricots. Moments later, the butler brought little white plates from the revolving serving door, placing one before each us. Once before us, we could see what was on top of each plate: a cold, plainly white, gelatin dessert Mr. Jefferson introduced as blancmange, upon which Mr. Colbert spooned airy white clouds of a whipped cream, followed by splashes of a sweet syrup made from raspberries.
“The simplest of desserts this may be,” explained Mr. Jefferson, “but Fillotte needs little to complete it. Blancmange is a Bavarian delicacy made from sugar, cream, and finely ground almond. At the height of summer we enjoy it with fresh peaches, but this raspberry cream is just as fine. Oh, but here comes Mr. Colbert again with still another sweet condiment: a gooseneck of sauce sabayon – simply, beaten egg yolks, sugar and white wine – to enjoy with our creamy blancmange and Barsac.”
As the light from the long, tapered candles flickered, and the sky visible through the double glassed windows turned from brown-gold to deepening dark blue, we could tell from his sagging white brows that Mr. Jefferson had finally grown tired, as were we. The difference being that he was more than twice our age! Rising to his feet, with Mrs. Randolph beside him, he began to take his leave, saying: "We have enjoyed much fine cookery and wines, both of which have long been indispensable to my health. Now my body informs me that it has been sufficiently fortified.
"Martha and I invite you to join us for breakfast at precisely ten minutes after eight; and afterwards, I must attend to renovations being done in the Dome Room. During the interim, my granddaughter Anne will show you our flower beds along the West Lawn, now approaching full bloom of summer. Following that, I hope you will enjoy an exploration of our fruit orchards – which include thirty-eight sub-varieties of peach! – accompanied by the good Captain Bacon, and also Great George, if he is not predisposed.
“But before retiring to the Madison Room, we implore you to revisit with Mr. Colbert in our most honorable suite," said Mr. Jefferson, pointing to the Tea Room in the alcove adjoining the Dining Room. "He shall be decanting one of the last bottles of my favorite sweet red wine, called Calcavallo – a rare unbrandied Port – and serving it with a blue-veined cheese from France, a fig paste made from trees growing at the foot of our garden wall, and lavender honey purchased from one of our more enterprising farmers here in Monticello.
“Ah, there goes the eight o’clock chime on the grandfather’s clock, and I also hear a newly arrived book on architectural design calling me to my bedside.” Clasping hands, we expressed our gratitude to our host, suddenly stooped from the length of the day’s nonstop activities and culinary peregrinations.
“May I leave you two with one last thought?” he asked. “Determine never to be idle, for it is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing. As for me, what I must now do is go quietly into the night. Adieu!”
Dining at Monticello, Edited by Damon Lee Fowler; Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., 2005
The Gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Peter J. Hatch; Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., 1992
The Virginia House-wife (Facsimile Edition), Mary Randolph; University of South Carolina Press, 1984
Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.; www.monticello.org
Thomas Jefferson on Wine, John Hailman; University Press of Mississippi/Jackson, 2006