Jefferson's Cup of Joe

Jefferson's Cup of Joe

Annual Park Authority program tackles colonial food history.

Thomas Jefferson was picky about his coffee. According to historian Gaye Wilson, he specifically requested coffee imported from the West Indies and Indonesia, but refused to drink "green coffee," made with unripe beans, declaring that the drink had a "sourish" taste. Jefferson, who once described coffee as the "favorite drink of the civilized world," was dismayed that green coffee seemed to be popular among most Americans, said Wilson.

Historians and scholars from around the country arrived in Fairfax Friday, March 24 to learn about Jefferson's eating habits and other aspects of early American food culture. "Before You Can Cook: Acquiring Foodstuffs and Kitchenware," sponsored by the Fairfax County Park Authority, is part of an annual look into the culture of America past. For nearly 20 years, the conference has examined topics from courtship and marriage to leisure activities, said Jeanne Niccolls, collections manager with the Fairfax County Park Authority.

"The point is professional enrichment, education, professional development," said Susan Clark of the Park Authority. "We are constantly learning."

The day-long program focused not quite on food itself, said Niccolls, but on everything that went into the cooking process: historic animal breeds and butchering, planting crops for produce, hunting, trapping and fishing, ordering provisions and historical kitchenware.

"I think food is always a catchy topic," said Niccolls.

FOR THE MOST PART, said Wilson, Jefferson ordered the food supplies for Monticello himself.

"What I found interesting in my research was that definitely, he did participate in buying food," she said. Jefferson's love of cultured dishes and international foods came about during his years as ambassador of the new United States to France from 1785 to 1789, said Wilson.

According to Justin Sarafin, a curator at Monticello, Jefferson's kitchen had French influences as well. One of its most prominent features was a stew stove, which looked like a shelf running along the length of one side of the kitchen. The stove had wells of different sizes, shapes and depths, and the cook would place coals in the pits and set pots and pans into and on top of the wells. According to Sarafin, a stew stove was a fixture of upper-class English and French kitchens in the 18th century, used to cook delicate foods.

Enslaved cooks at Monticello such as Edith Fossett and James Hemings were trained in classical French cooking, said Sarafin.

"There were tools for very specific operations and very specific items of food," he said. Jefferson felt that a kitchen should have the best-quality tools in it, so he imported copper pots and pans from France to cook with.

Jefferson imported a number of food items as well, said Wilson. He loved olive oil, declaring in a 1787 letter to a friend that "the olive tree … of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious, if not the most precious." He also liked macaroni, she said, drawing sketches of an 18th-century pasta-making machine that he made a consulate travel overseas to buy for him.

EXAMINING DIFFERENT rungs of the 18th-century economic ladder, Colonial Williamsburg's Martha Katz-Hyman compared the kitchens of rich Williamsburg landowners such as Peyton Randolph to those of the enslaved people who worked for them. These kitchens are far more similar than they are different, said Katz-Hyman.

"Certain things appear again and again in inventories," she said. All kitchens were based around a collection of frying pans, pots and kettles, and plates, she said, which people could import from overseas, buy at the local market or even make themselves.

The differences between slave kitchens and those of wealthy colonists were less about the cooking implements themselves and more about the quantity and quality of those implements, she said. While Randolph’s kitchen may have an expensive copper pot and china plates, she said, a slave kitchen might have an iron pot and earthen plates.

One of the most significant similarities between the very wealthy kitchens and the slave quarters, however, was the people doing the cooking, she said: enslaved people.

"I can make an excellent argument that Peyton Randolph’s kitchen was a slave kitchen, because that is who was doing the cooking," said Katz-Hyman.

Joyce White of Anne Arundel Community College used old manuscripts and inventories to study what 19th-century Baltimore residents used to cook with. Coming into use in the mid-1800s was a box made of wood, lined with tin or zinc metal, with ice placed in the bottom. A precursor to the modern ice cooler, this device was called a "butter box," said White.

Some cooking implements used in the 19th century have fallen out of use, said White, such as a goose quill used to glaze meat or a pair of clippers to cut a sugar cone into pieces. One recipe, which White described as her favorite, suggests a handy method of scoring caramelized sugar on a lemon bonbon: use a sword blade.

"I thought it was a good, multi-task use of a sword," said White. "But you used what you had."