Thomas Jefferson was the original champion of immigrant cuisine. Many of the 330 varieties of what were then rare and exotic herbs and vegetables in his garden were brought from faraway lands: eggplant from the Middle East, potatoes from Europe, sesame from Africa. The harvests of those immigrant vegetables are integral elements of today’s American cuisine.
So Michele Kayal and I were delighted to give a talk at the Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival that celebrates his legacy.
We drank real colonial hot chocolate, tasted local cheeses from Caromont Farm, oohed and ahhed at long tables with tomatoes of every size and color and marveled at gherkins that looked like marble-sized watermelons. But our biggest takeway was the food stories we heard from the people who came to hear us talk about why we eat what we eat.
A New Yorker told us that on Fridays, before the sun set marking the beginning of the Sabbath, her grandfather, a kosher butcher, would send her family a box of meat. “Not the good stuff,” she said. “Not the rib roast. That was for customers. We got the liver, the sweetbreads and the feet.” She said her grandmother was famous for her pickled calves feet. Sadly, her grandmother died before she could taste them. It took a generation for her to have the experience when she was in Italy visiting her son. She thought they were pretty good.
Her husband was from New Mexico, and they both talked about her first experience in his home state when her mouth was on fire from a chile-packed meal. As she waved her hand in front of her mouth, he handed her a sopaipilla soaked in honey to cool her tongue. From pickled calves feet to sopaipillas is quite a culinary journey in one country.
A young African-American man talked about growing up in Virginia eating pig brains and eggs. It’s not a memory he particularly cherished. On the other side of the tent, a 74-year-old Caucasian man who grew up in West Virginia said pig brains were among his favorite foods. Still are. He likes them pan fried.
Another New Yorker talked about his German grandmother’s stuffed cow stomach. The West Virginian said he also likes haggis — the Scottish dish made of stuffed sheep stomach.
And people think nose-to-tail eating is something new.