Just Published: Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America



In 1784, Thomas Jefferson struck a deal with one of his slaves, 19-year-old 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 U.S. history.  As James apprenticed under master French chefs, Jefferson studied the cultivation of French crops (especially grapes for winemaking) so they 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 nonfiction book tells the fascinating story behind their remarkable adventure – and includes 12 of their original recipes.

The book, scheduled to be published September 12, is by Thomas J. Craughwell, who provides a synopsis in the latest issue of The American Spectator:

Jefferson’s desire for a French chef was not a sign that he was a food snob.  He enjoyed plantation fare, so much so that while he was in Paris, he developed a Hankering for smoked Virginia ham and Indian corn.  But he also had a taste for the best, and French cuisine was said to be the best in the world.  His passion for good food was a natural extension of his passion for gardening and his fascination with plants.  His gardens were not simply decorative; they produced the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that fed his family. They were also botany laboratories where he experimented to see which varieties of fruits and vegetables would thrive in Virginia.  In 1770, behind Monticello, he had his slaves cut a large terrace from the side of the mountain and clear the ground for a kitchen garden that ultimately would grow to be 1,000 feet long and 80 feet wide.  In time, it would produce more than 300 varieties of vegetables.

Other books by Craughwell include The Greatest Brigade: How the Irish Brigade Cleared the Way to Victory in the Civil War (Fair Winds, 2011) and Stealing Lincoln’s Body (Harvard University Press, 2007).

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