Saturday, October 13, 2012

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee

This combines two of my favorite topics- American history and food. In 1784 Thomas Jefferson makes a deal with his slave, James Hemings. James will travel with him to France and be trained in the fine art of French cooking, and will then bring this knowledge back home to train the slaves at Monticello. After this service is completed, James is to be granted his freedom. Much of the story involves the events that are going on in France at the time, the revolution against the monarchy of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I found it fascinating to see what people were eating in those days both in France and America, necessity and availabilty played a factor in the daily diet. Jefferson was always on the lookout to bring new ideas back home to his beloved country to make it the best place it could possibly be. He kept amazingly detailed records of every little plan and item puchased in regards to his estate and the care of his slaves, and was always experimenting with new ways to improve life for himself and those around him. The history of food is a fascinating story all in itself. So much of what is now Southern and American food is a fusion of so many different cultures, not just of French influence. Many of the foods and dishes were African in origin, what the slaves were used to in their native homes- Ngombo (gumbo), okra, black-eyed peas, hoppin' john, and so many more. Some of the French ideas brought back were macaroni and cheese, creme brulee, French fries, Champagne, and sauces. My biggest disappointment in this story is the lack of information about James Hemings. I would have loved to have had some perspective from his point of view, what his life was like both in France and then when he returned to America, and then when he finally became a free man. It is so sad that his experiences and feelings are lost to us.

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