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Book Review: Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine by Thomas J. Craughwell

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Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J. Craughwell is a nonfiction book which covers the time Jefferson spent as an ambassador in Europe from a culinary point of view, and offers an overview lesson in the French Revolution. Jefferson’s slave James Hemings – who mastered French cooking and the French language – was 20 years younger then Jefferson and brother to the young Sally Hemings.

Thomas Jefferson is known as a man of many roles: Founding Father, philosopher, politician, President, slave owner, and gentleman farmer. But Jefferson was also a gourmand. In 1784, when appointed a minister in France, Jefferson, accompanied by his slave James Hemings, embarked on a grand adventure with many historical outcomes.

While James Hemings was learning to be a master chef, Jefferson became familiar with French cuisine, wine, culinary tools and gadgets, as well as agricultural cultivation techniques. When the two men returned, they brought with them a colorful narrative as well as new delicacies such as pasta, French fries, champagne, macaroni and cheese, and, of course, crème brûlée.

I was excited to read Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée. I have read a few books about Thomas Jefferson but never from this perspective. I even went to the local liquor store and picked up Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale from the Yards Brewing Co. in preparation (an ale made from recipes found in a tavern by Monticello which Jefferson used to frequent – smooth, medium body, unique, bitter, and interesting).

My introduction to Jefferson’s culinary palate was actually a children’s book I bought our daughter before we went to Monticello (Jefferson’s home) which quickly became a family favorite. The book, Thomas Jefferson’s Feast by Frank Murphy, has a few pages about Jefferson’s dumbwaiter which was the big draw for my kids during the tour.

It is well known that Thomas Jefferson liked the good things in life –wine, cheese, food, and company. While Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée is not an academic treatment of the Founding Father it is a very interesting book about a fascinating man who found himself in the middle of history-making events on both sides of the Atlantic.

I loved the culinary anecdotes in the book, including the introduction of the potato to Europe, Jefferson’s developing taste in wine, and such exotic dishes as pommel frites (French fries) and macaroni and cheese (which were served at fancy dinners). I did not realize that in exchange for James mastering the secrets of the French kitchen, Jefferson promised him his freedom (and eventually even made good on the promise) as long as James agreed to teach other slaves his skills.

After finishing this book, I actually wanted to learn more about James, who it seems to me never got his full due for introducing French cuisine to America. However, I found the book lacking on the culinary exploits of Mr. Jefferson until I read the appendix. Strangely enough, the appendix was what I was expecting the book to be and added much to the narrative and tied the book together nicely.

Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée is short (less than 200 pages including the appendix) with a few recipes and is an excellent addition to any library, culinary or historical. The relationship between Jefferson and Hemings is one of the strangest, yet most productive ones I have encountered during my readings on this particular time period.

Related Reads:
Amer­i­can Sphinx: The Char­ac­ter of Thomas Jef­fer­son by Joseph J. Ellis

Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée:

  • 256 pages
  • Publisher: Quirk Books
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594745781

Buy this book in paper or electronic (Kindle) format.

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