A 46-year-old Thomas Jefferson seemed different when he returned to America after five years in France, stepping off the boat wearing “silk suits, ruffles, and an unusual topaz ring.” In Paris, living, as Patrick Henry put it, “in splendor and dissipation,” our man TJ really came into his own. Reading John Hailman’s 2006 book, Thomas Jefferson on Wine, I learned that we owe our third President for much more than a great university and a few important documents. Jefferson, it turns out, was America’s Founding Foodie.
As American Minister to France, Jefferson led the life of the bobo gourmet, pontificating on the quality of pork (“…they find that the small hog makes the sweetest meat…”), discussing breakfast (“Remarkably fine bread here…”), and ordering wine, sometimes under great duress (“…I now find myself with a pressing need…send me immediately 250 bottles of wine…let the price be what it has to be…”). Traveling through the wine regions of France and Germany, Jefferson fell in love with the sweet wine of Chateau d’Yquem (now hundreds of dollars per half-bottle), the reds of Chateau Haut-Brion (where a bust of the great man watches over the barrel room), and, of course, Champagne (although he preferred it without bubbles). As he traveled, he bought, amassing a wine cellar in Paris that numbered well over 2,000 bottles. Not that this presented a problem. TJ’s pal Ben Franklin probably drank up more than his share; by 1785 Franklin was so plagued with gout from his excessive eating and drinking that he had to leave France. He was carried out of Paris on a litter donated by King Louis XVI.
Once back in the U.S. of A., Jefferson set about ensuring that his presidency would be a heavily gustatory one. He spent almost $146,000 on food over his eight years in office (out of a total earnings of $200,000). On what, you ask. Check out the shopping list for an 1807 feast for the Tunisian ambassador: 120 pounds of beef, 90 pounds of mutton, 35 pounds of veal, 27 pounds of pork, three turkeys, 30 “small birds,” 204 eggs, 25 pounds of butter, 30 pounds of rice, and assorted vegetables. Wine? Jefferson not only had a wine cellar dug beneath the White House, but according to Hailman, he spent $3,200 on wine each year during his first term—this at a time when Champagne cost 75 cents a bottle.
Jefferson went to great lengths all his life to have olive oil, anchovies, pasta, and of course wine sent over from Europe. Hailman’s book goes to great lengths as well—400 pages to be exact—documenting every bottle. It’s a tedious, but nonetheless remarkable portrait of our town’s patron saint as seen through the long, narrow lens of his obsession. Jefferson, I think, would love Charlottesville today. Can’t you just see him? Making wine, growing organic heirloom tomatoes, a “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” bumper sticker on his hybrid?
Our Founding Foodie turns 265 April 13, and in this election year it would do us well to ponder a president who knew what truly mattered in life. Seven years before his death, in a letter to a doctor who asked how he remained so healthy, Jefferson outlined his diet and then added, “I double however, the Doctor’s glass and a half of wine, even treble it with a friend.” When he died, Hailman writes, “his wine cellar was filled with nearly fifty cases of good wines with a new shipment en route.” We should all be so lucky.