Jefferson credited with inventing mac-n-cheese

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 9, 2011

We recently spent several days in Charlottesville, Va., at the University of Virginia at something my husband had wanted to do for some time – the annual Jefferson Symposium on the lawn.

The symposium included lectures by some noted Jefferson scholars and comments from participants which included some big Jefferson fans and scholars, some of whom had been coming since the symposium started 22 years ago.

We ate in one of the university’s “hotels” designed by Jefferson as the student dining rooms; we had a dinner in the dome room of the Rotunda, the center of the “Academical Village” that Jefferson designed. We toured Montpelier, the newl- restored home of James Madison, the author of the Constitution, and his equally famous wife, Dolly. We had a lunch at Grace Church, Keswick, where Jefferson was once on the vestry (when he was involved in formal religion). We ate at Michie Tavern near Monticello before our private tour of Mr. Jefferson’s home, which included the usually off-limits dome room. Dinner that evening was at Morven, a nearby plantation, purchased by Jefferson for his friend, William Scott, in 1795, “I have bought Indian Camp for you because you have expressed some partiality for our neighborhood and climate…”

Scott never lived there, and the house was built in 1820 by a later owner who renamed it Morven. More recently, John W. Kluge owned Morven and donated it to the university. There, we had a wine tasting of Virginia wines produced by the Italian wine maker, Gabriele Rausse, who has done a great deal to establish Virginia as an important wine producing area of the U.S. He is growing grapes and making wine at Monticello, something Jefferson aspired to, but never succeeded, in doing.

Jefferson was a definite Francophile and on this upcoming anniversary of the French Revolution, July 14, I thought it appropriate to share a little of Jefferson and his love of France.

I bought a new cookbook, Dining at Monticello, and have already been cooking some of the recipes used at Monticello. The opening page of the book notes, “Popular legend, unbridled by fact and colored by romantic notion, places Jefferson at the very center of our national culinary identity, crediting him with the introduction of ice cream, macaroni, tomatoes, vanilla, French fries and even French cuisine to the young republic.”

“Patrick Henry purportedly claimed that ‘he has abjured his native victuals in favor of French cuisine.’ Jefferson, in fact, did bring his slave James Hemings to Paris ‘for the particular purpose of learning French cookery.’

“Monticello’s pantries and cellars were stocked annually with European delicacies; and many of the recipes he recorded are written in French or are French-influenced. Even as president, he found time to send some of his French butler’s recipes to his daughters at Monticello……Clearly, then, Jefferson’s years in Paris made a permanent imprint on his food habits.”

Jefferson’s slave, James Hemings, gained emancipation on the condition that he convey his knowledge of French cuisine to his brother, Peter Hemings, who served as cook at Monticello from 1796 to 1809. At the President’s House (It was not called the White House at that time.), Jefferson obtained the services of Honoré Julien as chef and Etienne Lemaire as maître d’hôtel. And, he brought his slaves, Edith Hern Fossett and Fanny Gillette, to Washington to learn French cooking techniques from his French chef there. We got a back stage tour of the work being done on interpretation of the enslaved work force and their presence at Monticello. The slaves’ names are being used to give them an indemnity so the public is being told of Edith, Fanny, Peter and James, as well as a host of others.

The restored kitchen (2004) is the second kitchen at Monticello built in 1808. Organized in the spirit of haute cuisine of 18th-century France, the kitchen was analogous to the French “cuisine,” or kitchen, equipped with built-in architectural features such as an eight-opening stew stove, counter-like work surfaces, and an extensive inventory of specialized cook-ware. The stew stove allowed cooks to regulate the heat beneath stew pans, making possible the delicate elements of French dishes. There was an extensive collection of copper cookware, relatively rare in American kitchens of the time, but essential for French-style cooking.

An extensive variety of foods was produced on the plantation or purchased within the neighborhood or from a local supplier. This was enhanced by specialty items and condiments that Jefferson ordered directly from Europe. He routinely ordered from France – wine and pasta, Smyrna raisins, Parmesan cheese, almonds, anchovies, Maille mustard, olive oil and “macaroni,” a term Jefferson used for all pasta.

The dining room at Monticello has recently been restored to its original chrome yellow. It is a striking change from the blue, which previous visitors have seen since the days of ownership of Monticello by the Levys. Margaret Bayard Smith, the wife of the National Intelligencer publisher, commented on dinner at Monticello, “here indeed was the mode of living in general [of] a Virginian planter,” but also noting a “European elegance.” Daniel Webster concurred, “Dinner is served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance.”

Baked Macaroni with Cheese

Mac and cheese is a well-known dish today. Jefferson enjoyed it at Monticello with his imported macaroni and Parmesan cheese. I did this dish last evening (cut everything in half). and it was very good.

Serves 6

4 cups whole milk

4 cups water

1 pound tube-shaped macaroni, such as small penne


6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small bits

8 ounces imported Parmesan cheese, or extra sharp Farmhouse Cheddar

Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Stir together the milk and water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add the macaroni, stirring well, and return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the macaroni is tender (about two minutes for fresh, four to six minutes for fresh and dried, and eight to 12 minutes for commercial pasta). Lightly drain it in a colander (it should still be a little wet) and return it to the pot. Season with salt to taste and toss well.

Lightly butter a 2-quart casserole dish and cover the bottom with one-third of the macaroni. Dot with one-third of the butter and shave one-third of the cheese over it using a vegetable peeler or mandolin. Repeat the layers twice more, finishing with a thick layer of cheese, and bake until golden brown, about 20-30 minutes.

Fried Potatoes

Jefferson’s menu notes from the President’s House listed “potatoes, raw, in small slices, deep-fried” – in other words, French fries, perhaps the earliest American reference to the now-iconic food.

Serves about 6

2 pounds white potatoes

Lard or peanut oil for frying (For authenticity, only lard or lard with bacon drippings will do – bacon makes everything better.)


Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Peel the potatoes and, using a sharp knife, mandolin, or food processor fitted with a slicing disk attachment, slice the potatoes into rounds ¼ -inch thick or thinner. Drop them into the cold water and soak for 30 minutes.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 150-170 degrees (the warm setting). Put enough lard or oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or deep skillet to cover the bottom by a least 1-inch but to come no more than halfway up the sides.

Place over medium-high heat and heat until very hot but not quite smoking (about 365-375 degrees). Fit a wire rack over a large rimmed baking sheet and set it near the skillet.

Drain and thoroughly dry the potatoes on absorbent towels and slip them a few at a time, into the fat until the pan is full but not crowded. Fry, stirring frequently to prevent them from sticking together and help them crisp, until they are crisp and golden brown. Remove the potatoes with tongs or a skimmer, allowing the fat to drain back into the pot, and spread on the prepared rack. Put the rack in the warm oven while frying the remaining potatoes.

When all the potatoes are fried, sprinkle lightly with salt and serve hot.