Jefferson was prolific gardener, loved greens

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 16, 2011

The 22nd Jefferson Symposium, which we attended in Charlottesville, S.C., was entitled “Thomas Jefferson and Plantation Life.” This included a good deal about the enigma of Jefferson the author of “All men are created equal,” and Jefferson, the slave holder. And was Jefferson the father to several of Sally Hemings’ children? We had the Pulitzer Prize winner, Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello as one of our speakers.

When one participant asked her, “Didn’t you say a couple years ago that there is no concrete evidence that Jefferson is the father?” she replied, “Yes.” “Who do you think is the father?” “Jefferson, without a doubt.” We learned also about the animals at Monticello, the attempt to produce wine, the soil loss due to the lack of contour planting on the “little mountain,” which has left gullies to this day. Jefferson is known for his vegetable garden, which was on a terrace below the house and has been reconstructed. He kept a garden book where he recorded the planting of hundreds of varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs in search of improved varieties of existing plants or new and useful additions to his collection. His plantings were a catholic and highly experimental amalgamation of wheat from Ireland, grapes from Italy, and tarragon from France, alongside peppers from Texas and cucumbers from Ohio. In the thousand-foot-long kitchen garden terrace he cultivated 70 different species and 330 varieties of vegetables.

Was Thomas Jefferson a vegetarian? He cannot be called a vegetarian, as we understand the term today. In his own time, however, he was unusually moderate in his consumption of meat and was notable for the variety as well as the quantity of vegetables he ate. He wrote, “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetable which constitute my principal diet.” His granddaughter, Ellen W. Coolidge, described his diet as, “He ate a great many vegetables and little meat, contrary to the custom of his countrymen.”

“He ate heartily, and much vegetable food, preferring French cookery, because it made the meats more tender,” according to Thomas J. Randolph, Jefferson’s grandson.

Daniel Weber explained, “He enjoys his dinner well, taking with meat a large proportion of vegetables.”

What was his favorite vegetable? He didn’t say, but if one looks at the frequency a vegetable is planted or purchased, we learn he loved English peas, sowing some 23 different varieties; lettuce was the most common vegetable purchased in the Washington markets for the President’s House. Monticello salads consisted of a mixed bouquet of greens: spinach, endive, orach, corn salad or mache, pepper grass, French sorrel, cress and ‘sprouts.’

Salad oil was a perennial obsession for Jefferson. He referred to the olive as “the richest gift of heaven.” When he found domestic olive oil imperfect and imported oil too expensive, Jefferson turned to the possibilities of a salad oil extracted from the seed of the sesame plant, or benne, and said the species was “among the most valuable acquisitions our country has ever made.”

Jefferson was a pioneer grower of “tomatas.” Cabbage was the second most commonly purchased vegetable bought by Jefferson from the Monticello slaves, and it was the second most purchased vegetable in the Washington markets. He planted 18 varieties in his garden. He grew perennial vegetables such as artichokes, asparagus and sea kale. Nasturtiums leaves and flowers were used in salads and the seeds used as substitute capers. French tarragon was a favorite herb.

The following recipes are from Dining at Monticello, edited by Damon Lee Fowler. They are from several sources relating to Thomas Jefferson’s family. The author has made an effort to achieve “doable authenticity.” Ingredients and techniques closely align with 18th-century practice, yet clarity and often 21st-century technology has been added.

Okra Soup

(Six other gumbo or okra soup recipes appear in the family manuscripts. One is simply entitled soup, suggesting it was almost commonplace.)

Serves 18

4 quarts water

1 pound young okra (each 3 inches long) trimmed and sliced

1 large white onion, peeled and finely chopped

2 cups fresh lima beans, or one package (10 ounces) frozen lima beans, thawed


Whole black pepper in a pepper mill

1 chicken (3 ½ pounds), cut up as for frying, setting aside the back and neck for another use

4 ounces salt pork, sliced about ¼ -inch thick and blanched

2 large sprigs each, fresh parsley and thyme, tied together in a bundle with kitchen twine

1 pound (about 3 medium) pattypan or yellow summer squash, trimmed and diced

5 medium potatoes, blanched, peeled, cored, and diced (about 2 cups)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 rounded tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour

3 cups cooked white rice

Bring the water to a simmer in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Stir in the okra and onion and return to a simmer. Reduce the heat as low as possible and cook at a bare simmer for 1 hour. Add the lima beans and simmer for another 30 minutes, or until the beans are just tender.

Season liberally with salt and a few grindings of pepper and add the chicken, salt pork, herb bundle, and squash. Raise the heat briefly to return to a simmer, lower it once more, and cook at a bare simmer until the chicken is fully cooked, about 1 hour. Add the tomatoes and continue simmering for another hour. Remove from the heat and discard the salt pork and herb bundle. The soup can be made ahead and cooled, covered, and refrigerated. When chilled (about 6 hours or overnight), remove and discard any fat that surfaces. Otherwise, let it cook until all the fat settles to the top, and skim it off.

When ready to serve the soup, return it to a simmer over medium heat. Knead together the butter and flour in a small bowl and stir it into the soup, simmering until lightly thickened, about 4 minutes. Serve it in warmed bowls with a whole piece of chicken in each bowl and about ¼ cup of white rice spooned into the center of each serving.

Stuffed Cabbage

This is one of the recipes copied out by Jefferson himself and entitled “a cabbage pudding.”

Serves 4-6

1 large green cabbage (about 2 pounds)

8 ounces lean beef sirloin, finely chopped

8 ounces beef suet, finely chopped

1 small white onion, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme, marjoram, or summer savory, or 2 teaspoons crumbled dried herbs

¼ cup dried breadcrumbs

3 large egg yolks, lightly beaten


Whole black pepper in a pepper mill

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Remove the outer green leaves of the cabbage, saving several if they are unblemished, and wash well under cold water. Slip the cabbage and any reserved outer leaves into the pot, return it to a boil, and cook until the outer leaves soften and can be pulled back easily, about 15 minutes.

Lift the cabbage out of the water and drain in a colander, leaving the water in the pot. Carefully pull back two or three rows of leaves, but leave them attached to the stem. Cut a large cross through the center, going all the way to the stem, but taking care not to puncture any of the outer leaves. Bend back the outer layers of the center and cut out the rest of it, leaving the outer leaves attached at the base.

Finely chop the center portion of the cabbage and toss in a large bowl with the beef, suet and onion. Stir in the herbs, breadcrumbs and egg yolks and season liberally with salt and several grindings of pepper.

Spread a 14-inch-square piece of double-folded cheesecloth flat and place the cabbage in the center. Gently pull back the leaves and pack the stuffing into the center, being careful not to break the outer leaves. Fold the leaves back over the stuffing and wrap any reserved leaves around it so that the cabbage appears whole. Fold the cloth over the cabbage, wrap it with twine and knot it securely.

Bring the cooking liquid back to a boil. Carefully lower the cabbage into it, return to a boil, and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer until the filling is fully cooked and the cabbage is tender, about 2 hours.

Lift the cabbage from the pot, draining well, and remove the cloth. Transfer it to a warm serving platter and rub it with butter. Serve whole, cutting it into individual wedges at the table.