Sunday, August 31, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee [book review]

Our August Kitchen Reader book was Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J Craughwell. It's a history book that covers Jefferson's time in France before he was president of the USA. He was appointed minister to France for almost five years. This book shows that Jefferson was not only a diplomat, politician, founding father of the US and intellectual, he was also a gourmand.

When Jefferson went to France he took his slave, James Hemings. He made an arrangement with Hemings that if he learned French cookery and then returned to the USA with Jefferson to teach someone else, Jefferson would grant his freedom. The book promises to elaborate on the five years Hemings spent in Paris becoming a French chef in order to bring French cuisine back to America.

Sadly, the book is not really focused on Heming's cooking at all. Instead, it is an interesting book about Jefferson's public life in France and what he learned there. I suppose there is not much evidence remaining about Heming's life in Paris. The book is obviously well researched, but there is virtually nothing about the courses Hemings took, what he thought of Paris, and what he learned to cook. Overall, I was disappointed by this book, though if it had been presented as a book about Jefferson's love of food and his time in France it would have lived up to expectations.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are about Jefferson's love of kitchen gardening and food. While abroad, he sought out food experiences. He loved vegetables, and brought back seeds and plants when he travelled. When he readied to leave France,
He filled eighty-six crates with kitchen utensils and equipment, including a pasta-making machine from Italy. He also packed up sines, cheeses, olive oil, and Maille mustard--his favourite. He crated seedlings of fruit trees and ornamental trees, including four apricots, four Cresanne pears, one white fig, two cork oaks, five larches, and three Italian poplars.

The book states that eight of the recipes James learned and transcribed in France have survived. There are some reproductions in the book, though they are unreadable in my Kindle version. There is a creme brulee recipe on the back cover of the paperback, which is not included at all in the Kindle version. (You can see an image here on the blog of the Omar Niode Foundation.)

I have no doubt that James Hemings made an important contribution to the spread of French cookery into the USA. Perhaps one day a book will be written that details his story more fully.

Our next Kitchen Reader book is the classic Molecular Gastronomy by Herve This (chosen by Morena of Peru Delights). I can't wait to see what I will learn from that! New members are always welcome, by the way.

What foods have you brought home from your travels?

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