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The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine by Dave DeWitt

The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized Ame

The Founding Foodies, by Dave DeWitt, is an easy-going chat on matters historic and gastronomic in the Old Dominion and beyond. DeWitt dismisses some food writers’ contentions that colonial food was poor stuff.  Having attended Mr. Jefferson’s university and being thus familiar with the third president’s many accomplishments, he knew that this common opinion was surely an overgeneralization.  Jefferson, as well as Washington and Franklin, were trend-setters—learned men who easily absorbed and promulgated cultured styles of fashion, philosophy, architecture, and, yes, food, derived European trends, especially their French allies.

Besides these Founding Fathers’ culinary preferences, DeWitt also looks at curious historical periods of Virginia history where food, or lack of same, played a noteworthy role.  At Jamestown, the horrors of spoiled ships’ rations and the colonists’ inexperience with hunting and fishing made them very dependent on the native tribes’ shared knowledge. They did learn to hunt and fish which was well since the supply ship was delayed, nearly resulting in John Smith being hanged.  Desperate to turn a profit in the days before tobacco, the settlers took up fishing on a grand scale—thousands of pounds of salted cod to England and dried fish to Spain.

But moving on to less trying times, Benjamin Franklin, influential writer that he was, convinced colonists to make much use of the native corn in a variety of ways and challenged those who wrote disparagingly of it. He recommended a fermented beverage that might be made from its stalks, a green cornstalk beer.  There is an old recipe for that in the book, drawn from Virginia planter Landon Carter’s papers. Indeed, it is one of about 30 recipes, several of which incorporate rum from the West Indies.  But with trade being opened up across the world, East Indian spices also found their way to the better-heeled early American kitchens.  Included is a curry recipe from Mary Randolph, a relation of Jefferson, whose 1820s cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, or the Methodical Cook, was extremely influential. It is still in print today.

At Mount Vernon, George Washington was trying various then-modern methods of producing beer, whiskey, and flour to turn a profit. But he also had much to do with the consumption of many kinds of foods, privately entertaining an estimated 2,000 people over a seven-year period.  Overseeing the kitchen was his wife, Martha. The recently published Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery is based on a seventeenth-century recipe manuscript that Mrs. Washington owned for 50 years.

Things got considerably more exciting once we entered into diplomatic negotiations with the French.  Both Jefferson and Franklin served as diplomats in Paris, where they were wined and dined and took note of what was being fed them.  Jefferson had his slave James Hemings apprenticed to a chef named Combeaux where he also learned French.  He was sent to study with the chefs at the estate of Chantilly also and eventually managed the kitchen at the fine hotel where Jefferson stayed.  James Hemings was indeed the brother to Sally Hemings who would be joining the Jefferson family in Paris shortly. DeWitt goes on to discuss Jefferson’s food and wine tours abroad and Benjamin Franklin’s (he was minister to France prior to Jefferson’s taking up the post) extensive wine cellar and his part in the potato crusades.  

Later chapters discuss the great barbecues enjoyed by Washington, food and wine at Jefferson’s Monticello, and a final chapter on recreating the recipes of “the founding foodies,” giving modern measures and techniques.  A helpful appendix directs travelers to recommended historical sites and restaurants that will intrigue those who enjoy food with a historic flair.