We know Thomas Jefferson as one of the Founding Fathers, but he was also a great champion of newcomers to this country – newcomers such as eggplant and sesame.
In his garden at Monticello, which still overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains just south of Charlottesville, Va., Jefferson collected more than 330 varieties of what were then rare and exotic herbs and vegetables from all over the world.
“A lot of the foods we eat today were grown in this garden and he was among the first to grow them,” says Peter Hatch, Monticello’s recently retired director of gardens and author of A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello. “It was an Ellis Island of introductions. What you see emerging at Monticello is a new American cuisine. It represents that diversity that defines who we are today.”
There were white and purple eggplant thought to be from Asia or the Middle East; potatoes, popular then in Northern Europe; tomatoes, originally from central America and highly unusual in the United States. The third president of the United States became obsessed with sesame, Hatch says, an African transplant known in Gullah, or Carolina slave cuisine, as “bene.” Okra, sweet potatoes and peanuts, all associated with slaves and unusual for a gentleman to grow in his garden, had their place on Jefferson’s hill, as did the lima beans, patty pan squash and corn of Native Americans. Jefferson got seeds from friends, neighbors, travelers and guests; from nurserymen and botanists, and from foreign dignitaries, who vied with each other to offer him the most exotic seeds from their countries. He even got seeds from the explorer Meriwether Lewis.
With the vegetables he grew, Hatch says, Jefferson dined on – and served to guests – a literal melting pot of cultures from this country and around the world.
“Jefferson’s recipes broke new ground in defining who we are,” Hatch says.
From recipes found in the family documents, Hatch believes Jefferson and his guests supped on gazpacho, the cold tomato soup from Southern Spain. Hatch also credits Jefferson with helping create a signature dish of the new American cuisine: gumbo. The word gumbo comes from an African word for okra.
A recipe recounted in an unpublished manuscript by the late food historian Karen Hess and long attributed to Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, was pretty basic: “[Ocra] Soup. Cut up Ocra, cymlins (patty pan squash) & Irish potatoes very small. Put them on in [sic] an earthen pot with water enough, some slices of lean bacon, onion & parsley chopped small. Put in lima beans, & tomatas [sic] peel’d. Boil a handfull [sic] of thyme in it for about an hour. Add a chicken & thicken the soup with flour and butter.”
This one dish combines many cultural influences on the young country: The slave vegetable okra, Native American lima beans and squash, and “Irish” potatoes
“And this whole dish was put together in Monticello’s kitchen by African slaves who were trained in Paris,” Hatch says. “It inspired a revolutionary cuisine.”
This okra soup or “gumbo,” as it was called in Jefferson’s Virginia, is attributed to his daughter Martha Randolph, according to “Dining at Monticello” (Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2005). Serving this dish with rice suggests it has West African origins, says Damon Lee Fowler, culinary historian and the book’s editor. Fowler says this gumbo survives today in virtually every Southern cook’s repertoire as “vegetable soup.”
- 4 quarts water
- 1 pound young okra (each 2 to 3 inches long), trimmed and sliced
- 1 large white onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 cups fresh lima beans, or 1 package (10 ounces) frozen lima beans, thawed
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 chicken (3 ½ pounds), cut up as for frying (keep back and neck for another use
- 4 ounces salt pork, sliced about ¼-inch thick
- 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 tomatoes, blanched, peeled, cored and diced (about 2 cups)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 rounded tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3 cups cooked white rice
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, bring water to a simmer. Stir in okra and onion and return to simmer. Reduce the heat as low as possible and cook at a bare simmer for 1 hour. Add the lima beans and simmer another 30 minutes, or until beans are just tender.
Season with salt and pepper. Add 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 tomatoes and continue simmering for another hour. Remove from heat and discard salt pork and herb bundle.
The soup can be made a day or two ahead and cooled, covered and refrigerated. When chilled, remove and discard any fat that surfaces. Otherwise, let cool until all fat rises to top and skim off.
When ready to serve, return soup to a simmer over medium heat. Knead together the butter and flour in a small bowl and stir into the soup, simmering until slightly thickened, about 4 minutes.
Serve in warmed bowls with a whole piece of chicken in each bowl and about ¼ cup white rice spooned into the center.