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The Epicure of the White House

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

The whole of my life has been a war with my natural taste, feelings and wishes,” Thomas Jefferson remarked in wistful retrospect on his retirement from the presidency. “Domestic life and literary pursuits were my first and my latest inclinations, circumstances and not my desires led me to the path I have trod.” It is not surprising, in view of this confession, to find that our first Democratic President was one of the greatest epicures and connoisseurs of the art of living, of his day. The choicest delicacies of two continents made their appearance on the presidential table, the finest wines were imported from France and Italy, the food was prepared by chefs brought from Paris, and the whole was supervised by the President himself.

Jefferson showed the same interest and punctiliousness in his household affairs as he did in those of state. The selection of a cook or a maitre d’hotel was given no less thought than the choice of a minister plenipotentiary. He penned a rule for “Nouilly a maccaroni” with the gravity that he signed a treaty. It was no unusual thing for him to pause in his official duties to write his daughter: “I enclose you Lemaire’s receipts. The orthography will be puzzling and amusing but the receipts are valuable.” The receipt was for “pannequaiques.”

During the four years he lived in Paris Jefferson had devoted himself to the intricacies of French cooking. The most precious recipes of the cuisiniere, whom he employed at three hundred francs a year with an allowance of one hundred francs for wine, were carefully copied in his own hand and brought back to the United States. Thus it happens that our first American recipe for ice cream, then no vulgar commonplace, is in the writing of a President of the United States.

Although General Washington seems to have had the first ice cream freezer on record—he noted that in May, 1784, he spent “1. 13. 4 By a cream machine for Ice”— Martha Washington’s numerous recipes do not include one for ice cream. Jefferson, however, made his as follows:

2 bottles of good cream 6 yolks of eggs 1/2 lb. sugar

mix the yolks and sugar

put the cream on a fire in a casserole first putting in a

stick of vanilla When near boiling take it off and pour it gently into

the mixture of eggs and sugar Stir it well.

put it on the fire again stirring it thoroughly with a spoon to prevent its sticking to the casserole.

When near boiling take it off and strain it through a towel.

put it in the sabotiere.

then set it in ice an hour before it is to be served. Put

into the ice a handful of salt put ice all round the sabotiere

i. e. a layer of ice a layer of salt for 3 layers, put salt on the coverlid of the sabotiere & cover the

whole with ice. leave it still half a quarter of an hour Then turn the S. in the ice 10 min. Open it to loosen with a spatula the ice from the inner

sides of the S. Open it from time to time to detach the ice from the


When well taken (prise) stir it well with the spatula put it in moulds, jostling it well down on the knee then put the mould into the same bucket of ice leave it there to the moment of serving it to withdraw it, immerse the mould in warm water, tossing it well till it will come out & turn it into a plate.

This ice cream was served in a more elaborate manner on state occasions. One visitor to the White House reports that at a presidential dinner the ice cream was brought to the table in the form of small balls, enclosed in cases of warm pastry, a feat that caused great astonishment and mur-murings. Indeed, Jefferson’s predilection for intricate dishes, usually of French origin, was at times the occasion for unfavorable comment, no matter how palatable they had proven to his guests. His great antagonist, Patrick Henry, denounced him, in a political speech, as a man who had “abjured his native victuals,” and was unfaithful to good, old-fashioned roast beef.

An ice was but one of the delicacies Jefferson learned to make in France. His servants were interviewed and his friends implored to yield the secrets of the kitchen. “Biscuits de Savoye, Blanc Manger, Meringues, Macarons and Quacking Jellies” were favored eighteenth-century viands for which Jefferson diligently transcribed the recipes. Sometimes they were in English, sometimes in French, now and then partly in each. The ingenuous rule for “Wine Jellies” begins gaily in English: “take 4 calves feet & wash them well without taking off the hoofs. These feet must be well boiled the day before they are wanted.” The “Meringues,” however, are thoroughly “hyphenated”: “12 blancs d’oeuf, les fouettes bien fermes, 12 cueillerres de sucre en poudre, put them by little & little into the whites of eggs, fouetter le tout ensemble, dresser les sur un papier avec un cueiller de bouche, metter les dans un four bien doux, that is to say an oven after the bread is drawn out. You may leave them there as long as you please.”

After Jefferson’s departure from France, William Short, his protege and confidential secretary, left in Paris as charge d’affaires, was pressed into service, and it was not unusual to find among the diplomatic papers that were dispatched across the sea, detailed directions “de faire cuire un poulet en cassette,” or some other delicacy. Short even made a special trip to Naples to secure a “maccaroni mould” for Jefferson, in order that his patron might indulge in this favorite food. He writes: “I procured at Naples, according to your request, the mould for making maccaroni. It is of a smaller diameter than that used at the manufactories of maccaroni, but of the same diameter with others that have been sent to gentlemen in. other countries. I went to see them made. I observed that the maccaroni most esteemed at Naples was smaller than that generally seen at Paris. This is the part of Italy most famous for the excellence of the article.” Short was unaware that among the macaroni-cognoscenti this was known as spaghetti.

Lemaire, Jefferson’s faithful maitre d’hotel during his presidency, contributed a disquisition on the use of wines in cooking: “Facon Demployer differents sorte de vin a Lu-sage de la cuisinne francaise,” probably our earliest written record, in America, of this refinement in the art of cooking. The author’s orthographical accomplishments were scarcely greater in French than in English.

Boeuf a la mode. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .1/2 peinte de vin blanc

Veau a l’estaufade. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . ..1/2 idem de blanc

Dindon a la daube. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . …1/2 idem . . idem

Matelot de paicon. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . .. . ..1/2 idem de rouge

From Petit, who entered his service in Paris as valet de chambre and was subsequently promoted to the rank of maitre d’hotel “in consequence of embezzlements and depredations committed by M. Marc, the late controller of Finances in his Department,” Jefferson secured a recipe for making coffee which he ever after used. The terse annotation con-

Une fricasee de lupin Un Gateau au ri. . .. . .. . .

1/2 idem de rouge

une peinte de sherry

Les Beg’nais de pomme Les Beg’nais de pain. . . Poutain a l’anglaise. . .. . ..

pour la sauce marin6

. . …1/2 Goblet d’au vie

. . ..1/2 peinte madeira

1 peinte pour la sauce eluding the “rule” is but one of the many evidences of the meticulous care with which the President watched every detail of his household.

On one measure of the coffee ground into meal pour three measures of boiling water, boil it, on hot ashes mixed w. coal, till the meal disappears from the top, when it will be precipiteted.

Pour it three times through a flannel strainer, it will yield 2 1/3 measures of clear coffee. An ounce of coffee meal makes 1 1/2 cups of clear coffee in this way. The flannel must be rinced out in hot or cold water for every making.

Tea was likewise subject to his careful scrutiny and scientific observation, as well as sugar. He notes in his account book:

Feb. 8.

tea out. the pound has lasted exactly 7 weeks, used 6 times a week. this is 8/21 or .4 of a oz. a time, for a single person. A pound of tea making 126 cups costs 2 D. 126 cups or ounces of coffee = 8 lb. cost 1.6. Campbell, 1 lb. Imperial tea 2.

Feb. 18.

on trial it takes 11 dwt Troy of double refd maple sugar to a dish of coffee or 1 lb. avoirdupoise to 26.5 dishes, so that at 20 cents per lb. it is 8 mills per dish. An ounce of coffee at 20 cents per lb. is 12.5 mills so that sugar & coffee for a dish is worth 2 cents.

To a practical knowledge of the art of cookery Jefferson added a theoretical one. In his library, catalogued under the “Technical Arts” we find this imposing list of “cook books”:

The London Country Brewer, 8vo; Cimbrini’s Theory and Practice of Brewing, 8vo; Richardson’s Philosophical principles of Brewing, 8vo; Knight on the Apple & Pear, Cider and Perry, 12mo; Apicii Coelius de Opsoniis et Con-dimentis, sive Arte Coquinaria, 12mo. apud Waistburgios, Amsterdam MDCCIX; Avis au peuple sur leur premier besoin (le pain) par l’Abbe Baudan, 12mo. Amsterdam MDCCLXXIV; Avis sur la maniere de faire le pain, par Parmentier, 12mo; Le Parfait Boulanger, par Parmentier, Paris MDCCLXXVIII, 8vo; Parmentier sur les Pommes de Terre (learned treatise) Paris MDCCLXXXI, 12mo; Eale’s cookery, 12mo; Dictionaire Domestique, 30 12mo. Paris MDCCLXIV; Kraft’s American Distiller, 8vo; Tracts on Potash & Maple Sugar, Williamos, Hopkins remarks on Maple Sugar, 8vo; Resultats de la Fabrication des Sirops et des Conserves de Raisins, par Parmentier, 8vo; Paris 1812.

During his travels in Europe Jefferson made a point of sampling the foods and fruits of the locality through which he was passing. Thus in Holland he first tasted waffles and promptly bought a waffle iron for 1.3 florins. In Amsterdam it was Hyson’s tea that pleased him and he carried along half a pound for 2 florins 13. At Nancy he notes paying “1 franc 4 for chocolate,” and in his tour of southern France he made a comparative gustatory study of oranges in the various towns he visited. Ortolans also came under his notice; he paid 6 francs for a dozen of them at Nice. On his return to the United States he found the delicacies to which he had become accustomed sadly wanting, and Petit, who followed him, was instructed to “bring a stock of maccaroni, Parmesan cheese, figs of Marseilles, Brugnoles, raisins, almonds, mustard, vinaigre d’Estragon, other good vinegar, oil, and anchovies.”

Jefferson was the first to introduce vanilla to this country, as well as macaroni. In 1791, when Secretary of State, he wrote from Philadelphia to William Short, the American charge at Paris:

Petit informs me that he has been all over the town in quest of vanilla, & it is unknown here. I must pray you to send me a packet of 50 pods (batons) which may come very well in the middle of a packet of newspapers. It costs about 24 s a baton when sold by the single baton. Petit says there is great imposition in selling those which are bad; that Pie-bot generally sells good, but that still it will be safe to have them bought by some one used to them.

It was as a connoisseur of wines, however, that Jefferson outshone all his contemporaries. He regarded wine, to use his own words, “as a necessity of life.” “I rejoice as a moralist,” he wrote toward the end of his life, “at the prospect of a reduction of the duties on wine, by our national legislature. It is an error to view a tax on that liquor as merely a tax on the rich. It is a prohibition of its use to the middling class of our citizens, and a condemnation of them to the poison of whiskey, which is desolating their houses. No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey. Fix but the duty at the rate of other merchandise, and we can drink wine here as cheap as we do grog; and who will not prefer it? Its extended use will carry health and comfort to a much enlarged circle. Every one in easy circumstances (as the bulk of our citizens are) will prefer it to the poison to which they are now driven by their government. And the treasury itself will find that a penny apiece from a dozen, is more than a groat from a single one. This reformation, however, will require time.”

During his travels through France and Germany in 1788, Jefferson made an extensive study of the vintages and the cultivation of grapes, not only for the sake of importing the wines, but also to introduce the culture to Virginia, something he had attempted even before the Revolution. From his faithful account book we observe that this was always in his thoughts. Thus he mentions, on April 10, 1788, at Hocheim, buying one hundred vines for 2f.l5, and the same day, at Rudesheim, fifty vines for the same price. These were destined, of course, for America. The travel notes he made at this time are a learned treatise on viniculture. Nothing is omitted, from the imposing list beginning with Le Comte de Sichen, Le Comte d’Oschenstein, L’Electeur de Mayence, Le Comte de Meternisch, whose estates were said to yield the best crops, to the important information that “the vignerons of Rudesheim dung their vines about once in five or six years, putting a one-horse tumbrel load of dung on every twelve feet square.”

It was thus no accident that Jefferson’s friends should come to rely upon his taste and knowledge. In 1790 we find him ordering sixty-five dozen bottles of wine for the President, George Washington, and as late as 1818 all but half a dozen lines of the letter of congratulation he wrote the new President, James Monroe, were devoted to a disquisition on the best wines of the time for official entertaining.

During his own administration the President’s house was famous alike for its cuisine and its cellar. The amount consumed was appalling, according to our present standards. As usual Jefferson kept careful account and made most detailed estimates. He noted, on March 20, 1804, “there remain on hand 40 bottles of the 247 of champagne received from Fulwer Skipwith December 1. The consumption then has been 207 bottles, which on 651 persons dined is a bottle to 3 1/7 persons. Hence the annual stock necessary may be calculated at 415 bottles a year, or say 500.”

The five hundred bottles of champagne were a mere beginning. From a list of “wine provided at Washington,” preserved among the Jefferson papers, we learn that in 1801 the President bought “five pipes of Brazil Madeira, a pipe of Pedro Ximenes Mountain (1269 gallons, 424 bottles of it sent to Monticello); a quarter cask of Tent; a keg of Pacharette doux; 400 bottles of claret; 540 bottles of Sauterne.” The record for the following years is no less magnificent.

Hospitality at the President’s house during Jefferson’s administration took on something of the free and easy character of a bachelor’s establishment, and it was always on a lavish scale. While in France Jefferson had formed “the habit of mitigating business with dinner,” to which he always afterward adhered. He entertained informally at dinner every day at four o’clock. The company usually numbered fourteen and was, as a contemporary remarked, “selected in reference to their tastes, habits and suitability in all respects, which attempt had a wonderful effect in making his parties more agreeable than dinner parties usually are.” A French cook, whom the Chevalier d’Yrugo, the Spanish Minister, had secured for Jefferson in Philadelphia at a salary of twenty-eight dollars a month, an exorbitant one for the time, reproduced many of the delicacies Jefferson had learned in France, and added a number of his own. “Never before,” one of his guests remarked, “had such dinners been given in the President’s house, nor such a variety of the finest and most costly wines. In his entertainments republican simplicity was united with epicurean delicacy; while the absence of splendour, ornament and profusion was more than compensated by the neatness, order, and elegant sufficiency that pervaded the whole establishment. . . .”

It was left to a New England clergyman to complain that fried eggs and fried beef were served at the same dinner with turkey, ducks, and rounds of beef, but he was consoled by tasting for the first time “the new foreign dish, macaroni,” by sampling ices and “a new kind of pudding, very porous and light, inside white as milk, and covered with cream sauce.” This may well have been the very “Blanc Manger” for which Jefferson acquired the following recipe in Paris:

4 oz sweet almonds, with 5 or 6 bitter almonds pour boiling water on them to take off the skin put them in a mortar and beat them with a little cream take them out of the mortar and liquify (delayer) them with cream little by little (peu a peu) stirring them 4 oz of sugar to be put in

have ready some isinglass (colle de poisson) say 1 oz dissolved in boiling water and pour it into the preceding mixture, stirring them well together

Strain it thro’ a napkin, put it into a mould, and it is done.

In Jefferson’s day, as now, the executive mansion boasted of two dining rooms, a large one on the northwest corner and a smaller one on the south front. It was here that Jefferson gathered his friends about him. The room was elaborately furnished, as an inventory in Jefferson’s own hand assures us. There was an “elegant side board with pedestals and urn knife cases, a large Mahogany Dining Table in six pieces, a Small dining Table in three parts, a large Mahogany Square Table, two Glass Cases to contain the Silver and plated ware, an Oval breakfast Table, and fifteen chairs, black and gold.” Chintz curtains, then the height of fashion, hung at the windows, and the walls were decorated with “two elegant Girandoles and two looking Glasses.” The floor was covered by a canvas cloth, painted green. In Jefferson’s own words, this was “laid down on the floor of the dining room when the table is set and taken up when the table is removed, merely to secure a very handsome floor from grease and the scouring which that necessitates.”

Jefferson had a particular aversion to the presence of servants while he was at table, “believing,” as one writer says, “that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversation at dinner tables, by these mute but not inattentive listeners.” To avoid this he had brought back from France the idea of the “dumb waiter,” a sort of stand with shelves, containing everything for the dinner from beginning to end. This was placed between the guests and enabled them to serve themselves. There were five of these in the private dining room of the executive mansion. Jefferson even went farther than this, as we learn from one of his guests. “There was in his dining room an invention for introducing and removing the dinner without the opening and shutting of doors. A set of circular shelves were so contrived in the wall, that on touching a spring they turned into the room loaded with the dishes placed on them by the servants without the wall, and by the same process the removed dishes were conveyed out of the room.” The cost of Jefferson’s dinner parties was very great, even for that time, and in spite of his careful calculations. During the first year of his presidency, his income failed to meet the expenditures. In an analysis he made on March 4, 1802, we find that he had spent $4,504.84 for provisions, $2,003.71 for groceries, $2,797.28 for wines, to say nothing of $2,675.84 for his fourteen servants. Lemaire frequently spent fifty dollars upon a single day’s marketing. In addition to the supplies purchased in Alexandria, Georgetown, and Richmond, things were constantly being sent from Monticello. Jefferson himself always ordered the provisions that were purchased on a large scale for the President’s House as well as for Monticello. Entertaining never ceased, even when he took his holiday. It is interesting to note what was required on the plantation for Jefferson’s annual spring visit:

two pipes Marsalla; two casks Bucellas and Termo; five casks 50 doz. porter; 40 beef’s tongues; 100 ham of Col. Mason; 4 kegs tomp and sounds, 40 lb. crackers; 5 bottles anchovies, 3 do pickles; 10 lb. almonds in a bag; 2 oz. cinnamon, 2 oz. nutmeg; 1 lb. allspice 1 lb. pepper; 6 bottles mustard; 6 lb. chocolate, 6 lb. sugar; 20 1/2 good cheese, 11 3/4 lb. ordinary; 40 lb. coffee; 10 lb. rice, 10 lb. pearl barley; 25 lb. raisins; 1 box sausages.

It is small wonder that such lavish entertaining should have made great inroads upon Jefferson’s fortune. There were few men in America at the time who could have borne the burden, least of all a Virginia planter whose land was decreasing in value with every year. With his frugal New England outlook John Adams once remarked: “I dined a large company once or twice a week. Jefferson dined a dozen every day. I held levees once a week, Jefferson’s whole eight years was a levee.” John Adams had failed to understand the hospitality of the South, a hospitality by which Jefferson was quite literally eaten out of house and home.


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