Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee by Thomas J. Craughwell

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How A Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine To America by Thomas J. Craughwell
Published September 2012 by Quirk Books
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for this review

From the publisher:

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson struck a deal with one of his slaves, 19-year-old James Hemings. The Founding Father was traveling to Paris and wanted to bring James along “for a particular purpose”—to master the art of French cooking. In exchange for James’s cooperation, Jefferson would grant his freedom.

My thoughts:
I can't remember how I found out about this book but as a history buff and a fan of Jefferson's, I thought this book would be great for Fall Feasting. I made a mistake with it, though. It's small and not very long (just 258 pages) and coming from Quirk Books (publishers of the monster smash hits Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Android Karenina). I thought it would make a great readathon book, quick and fun. Fluff this is not. Which made it not necessarily the best choice for a readathon and having not made a very good choice, I found myself starting to resent the book through no fault of its own.

I knew I needed to wait a bit to write my review, to give my brain some time to consider this book on its merits and not on my expectations. Craughwell has crafted a well researched exploration of early American eating and Thomas Jefferson's significant contributions to food in this country. We all know that early settlers on this continent had a tendency to die from starvation but were you aware that they largely refused to eat seafood and fish, food sources in good supply even in the winter or times of crop failure. Craughwell also explains the way food consumption on France changed over time before and during Jefferson's time there.

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee is also an interesting look at Jefferson's conflicted relationship with his slaves. James Hemings and Jefferson's wife, Martha, shared the same father. Although he was living in his sister's home, James was the property of the Jeffersons. He was granted his freedom in exchange for his cooperation in Jefferson's French experience, although even then Jefferson may have had ulterior motives. In France at that time, a slave need only, essentially, walk away from his master; Jefferson had to find a way to prevent that.

Between them Jefferson and Hemings introduced to America to a number of foods that are staples now: macaroni and cheese, pasta, and French fries (why, yes, they really are from France although they more closely resembled what we would now call fried potatoes). Oh, yeah, I also want to give them a big thank you for bringing champagne to this continent! Yet another reason to admire a man, who despite his flaws, contributed so much to this country.

I'm glad I took some time to think this one over before writing my review. I sometimes find that I've forgotten key points to a book if I want. In this case, however, I grew to appreciate all that Craughwell had taught me about this country, the way we eat and the ways in which Jefferson (and the French) influenced it.


  1. I find the subject of this book very interesting, and the fact that you brought up the point that Jefferson had a complicated relationship with his slaves seems to just jump out from your review. It sounds as if this was not really a light read, but one of those reads that makes you really take inventory on what history has told us, and what it has left out. Excellent review today!

  2. I knew the early AMericans didn't appreciate lobster but they wouldn't eat FISH!? I did not know that.

    I do bet this is an interesting book that combines history into different little segments of things to think about - food, culture, our president, slave issues...