Thomas Jefferson made history with the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase.
We also can remember him for the french fry.
Continuing our celebration of July Fourth, let’s take a look.
Our story starts in 1784 when Thomas Jefferson traveled to France as the U.S. minister. An enslaved 19-year-old accompanied him. Trained in France by the top chefs, that man, James Hemings, cooked for Jefferson and ran his kitchen.
The French prepared food differently from the English. Whereas the English placed a pot over a wood burning fire, the French had nuance. They used coals and a movable metal grate that let them vary the heat.
After Hemings learned all of this (and French too), he combined it with the Virginia cooking he grew up with. Actually, because the crops grown at Monticello included 250 varieties of greens, 25 varieties of tomatoes, 56 varieties of beans, the French-Virginia synergy was boundless.
Furthermore, in Europe, Jefferson accfumulated hundreds of bottles of wine, of olive oil, of different kinds of seeds, all of which he sent home. Returning to the U.S., he introduced french fries, meringue, mac & cheese, and ice cream. For his kitchen and Mr. Hemings, he commissioned a new stove (that probably was the equivalent of today’s Viking or La Cornue that sell for $15,000 or more).
Jefferson’s Ice Cream Recipe
Our Bottom Line: Human Capital
While we could say that Thomas Jefferson was the first American foodie, as economists, we should ask what it all means. Entering purely hypothetical territory, I would suspect that Jefferson sought to signal an image of the new nation that he represented and then led. Displaying his priorities, he conveyed the value of science and of taste. At the same time, we can see the huge contradiction of enabling the massive culinary talent of an enslaved gentleman to flourish and embody what Jefferson sought to communicate.
Ultimately, with James Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, we are talking about human capital. Defined as our store of knowledge, more human capital can boost invention and productivity. Certainly, Thomas Jefferson and James Hemings are the quintessential examples of American human capital.
And finally, returning to the Fourth of July…
On July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson died.
My sources and more: After a very pleasant morning walk listening to the Sporkful, I pondered the connection between presidential food and economics. Then, for more Jeffersonian foodie detail, this article from the History Channel came in handy as did this focus on Hemings.
From Wikipedia, our featured image is Thomas Jefferson. (This post was slightly edited after publication.)