Dear Ace: As the holiday season rolls around, I’m finding myself curious about the history of ham glaze, green bean casserole, etc. What would’ve been on Jefferson’s dining table during a Christmas feast?—Felix Navidad
Dear Felix: Boy, you’re just insatiable, huh? Ace is still trying his damndest to polish off the last of those Thanksgiving leftovers, and here you’re already thinking about stuffing your face at Christmas. Still, Ace is never one to look a gift horse in the mouth—especially when that horse might accidentally bite off his hand in a rabid, mashed potato-driven frenzy—so off to Monticello Ace went in his Acemobile to get the scoop.
According to some literature from Monticello’s research library (literature which can conveniently also be found on the estate’s website, www.monticello.org), holidays at the turn of the 19th century were pretty low-key affairs, focusing on food and family instead of gifts and tacky lawn displays.
So what would be on the table during these tooth-achingly sweet moments of togetherness? According to T.J.’s letters to friends, mince pie was a big hit (Ace tries to keep his pastries and globs of cow fat separate—but different strokes, Ace supposes) as were pork, cornmeal and a centerpiece of freshly-musketed wild game. As for Jefferson’s beloved vegetables, based on a survey he made of the different veggies available at a Washington, D.C. market at different times of year, it looks like his cooks would’ve had at their disposal during the holiday season some of the following: radishes, cabbage, turnips, carrots, beets, cauliflower, “potato Irish,” and a whole slew of nasty little leafy stuff. And to drink, any one of the dozens of bottles of vintage European vino the notorious oenophile had in his cellar at any given time.
The Jeffersons would’ve started eating at around 3:30 in the afternoon and sat around chatting, listening to a bit of live chamber music, and stuffing themselves well into the evening. According to one family member, Jefferson would never serve guests with any less than eight courses. But, Felix, if your mouth is watering at all this stuff and you’re looking to replicate Jefferson’s signature Virginia-French cuisine for your own Christmas dinner, you might, like Jefferson, need to hire yourself a culinary consultant. And don’t make the same mistake the Sage of Monticello once did: He not-so-sagaciously put up his live-in chef as stakes in a gambling game…and lost.