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By William Hageman
The next time you pop a french fry into your mouth or throw some olive oil into the frying pan, thank Thomas Jefferson.
For it was Jefferson who popularized those foods in the United States. More than just individual food items, Jefferson was a player on a much larger scale. He brought French cuisine to America.
And as the title of a new book points out, the author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president did not do it alone.
"Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America" is Thomas J. Craughwell's well-researched look at the impact Jefferson and Hemings had on our eating habits.
The author says that during the 20th century, Americans came to regard French cooking as the epitome of fine dining, and Julia Child's 1961 classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" made French cuisine accessible to everyone. "She is widely believed to be responsible for single-handedly introducing Americans to French food," he writes. "That is a misconception, of course; the real credit goes to a founding father and one of his slaves."
Americans were introduced to French cooking during the American Revolution.
Our French allies brought cooks as well as troops. But French cuisine had no staying power here; after independence, the French returned home, and America went back to decidedly more mundane menus.
"The mainstays of American colonial cooking," Craughwell writes, "were primarily meats (boiled, roasted, baked or stewed), breads, heavily sweetened desserts and generally overcooked vegetables."
Jefferson went to Paris in 1784 on a government appointment. With him was 19-year-old Hemings, whom Jefferson wanted trained in French cooking.
He was apprenticed to Combeaux, a caterer, where, Craughwell says, he had to learn French as well as culinary skills. (The author points out that Hemings soon spoke better French than Jefferson ever did.)
A fascinating underlying dynamic of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is the fact that Hemings was not only a slave but was also related to the Jefferson family. Hemings' father was John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law. That made him a half-brother to Jefferson's wife, Martha. When Wayles died, Jefferson inherited the Hemings family (including James' younger sister Sarah, or Sally, with whom Jefferson allegedly had at least one child).