Had Thomas Jefferson thrown a July 4th picnic on the west lawn of Monticello, his menu might have been similar to a modern holiday picnic.
As famous for his discerning palate as for his stirring prose in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson is more closely associated with Independence Day than any of our founding fathers. He died on July 4, exactly 50 years after the Declaration was signed.
On Jefferson’s table would probably have been tender ears of the season’s first corn, roasted to perfection in their husks; one of those famous Virginia hams, hand-cured and aged in the smokehouse next to Monticello’s kitchen, carefully poached and served cold in wafer-thin slices; savory slow-barbecued lamb or beef; crusty cornbread; baked macaroni with cheese; sliced fresh tomatoes; and, of course, vanilla ice cream.
Jefferson is often credited by over-enthusiastic admirers with having brought both ice cream and vanilla to America from France. Historian Karen Hess, who has spent two decades studying the Jefferson culinary papers and gardening records, points out that he didn’t—both were around long before Jefferson’s sojourn in Paris as America’s ambassador. However, she says he may well have had a lot to do with the popularity that both have enjoyed in our country ever since.
Fascinated by everything that crossed his path, Jefferson had a keen interest in food that was unusual for men of his station, and when he liked a dish, he often took the trouble to find out how it was made. He frequently copied recipes to send to his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who presided over Monticello’s table after the death of her mother in 1782. Jefferson himself did not cook, nor did he really know how to, so he often misunderstood the recipes he was copying, making huge gaffs in the method. Of these scribbled recipes, fewer than a dozen survive.
This July 4th, celebrate Jefferson’s political legacy with a scoop of his famous vanilla ice cream.
—By Damon Lee Fowler