Happy Independence Day, loyal Marketeers! Today I thought I would share some Founding Father wisdom with you. In this case, I present a brief take on the farming and culinary pursuits of my two favorite Founding Dudes, Washington and Jefferson.
While it may seem a strange juxtaposition to my topic, the pictures I share with you today are from our food blogger, Chef Jay Mahoney, and were taken during his recent trip to the devastated town of Rainelle, WV. Jay traveled to Rainelle to help Mercy Chefs prepare and serve over 1500 hot meals a day to the citizens there who were left with little more than the clothes on their backs after the floodwaters receded. The little town of Rainelle took the brunt of the death toll from the floods as 15 residents perished. The United Way of Greenbrier Valley is a worthy organization to donate to that will be dealing with the clean-up and rebuilding of Greenbrier County for a long time to come.
“I am once more seated under my own Vine and Fig-tree, and hope to spend the remainder of my days…making political pursuits yield to the more rational amusement of cultivating the earth.” – George Washington in a 1797 letter to his plantation manager at Mount Vernon
Every good student knows that George Washington was called the Father of our Country but what is often overlooked is the possibility that he could also be called the father of our agricultural system. Among other things, Washington has been called America’s first composter. As early as 1760, he was mixing compost and using manure on his fields based upon principles he learned from the English farmers of the day. And, desperate to find a way to re-nourish his fields after the scourge that growing tobacco visited upon them, he was also among the first Americans to implement a crop rotation system.
He was also a keen student of animal husbandry and was the first American to breed horses with donkeys. This earned him another fatherly title, Father of the American Mule. As if all this wasn’t enough, he was also a commercial fisherman (once called the First Angler), a brewer (this time earning the title First Fermenter), a distiller, and a miller. While I have not heard it applied I think he should also be given the title, Father of the American Entrepreneurial System, because not only did he do all these things but he knew how to make serious money doing all these things.
“I am tired of a life of contention and of being the personal object for the hatred of every man who hates the present state of things” – No, that’s not a quote from either our current or former president but from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his daughter, Martha.
In 1807, when the above quote was written, Thomas Jefferson, at the time in the last two years of his Presidency, was busy planning for his final retirement to Monticello. In that retirement he planned to return to the pursuits that brought him his greatest pleasure. At the top of that list were good food and wine. While serving as America’s minister to France during the 1780s he took the opportunity to greatly expand his knowledge and collection of great wine. He bought more than 250 bottles in the first month alone! He also sent his slave James Hemings (who automatically became a free man when stepping foot on French soil) to be trained in the French culinary arts. James went on to become chef de cuisine at a famous Paris hotel before returning to America with Jefferson in 1789.
Of course this meant that Hemings would give up his freedom once on American soil. However, Jefferson promised to set Hemings free once he trained his brother, Peter (yes, Sally Hemings was their sister), to be Monticello’s new chef. Jefferson lived up to his end of the bargain but, alas, James committed suicide a few years later in Baltimore.
Jefferson’s White House became known for his opulent state dinners and other parties which featured the finest cuisine America had to offer along with a selection of the world’s finest wines. In those eight years Jefferson purchased over 20,000 bottles of wine. Since Presidents had to foot their own bills back then Jefferson left office deeply in debt.
Unfortunately for Jefferson, for all his scientific accomplishments, he was never the successful entrepreneur that his pal Washington was. While Washington was always offering wise farming counsel to his friend, it seems that, whether thru incompetence or just plain bad luck, Jefferson’s farming fortunes rarely seemed to pan out. One of his great disappointments was the failure of his vineyards at Monticello (ironically, Jefferson Vineyards, just up the road from Monticello, makes some great wines today). While he was known as one of the greatest agricultural scientists of his day, Jefferson was never able to figure out ways to profit monetarily from this success. In this field, as in so many, Jefferson’s legacy is that of the great experimenter.
Most of the information I shared with you today came from a fascinating book written by food historian Dave DeWitt called The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine. It is very entertaining and would be a great beach read if you are interested in more information on this subject.