A Taste of History at the Jefferson
by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
Washington, D.C. is a city filled with the sites, monuments, and museums of American history. The Bailliage of Greater Washington, however, took its own approach to that history, spending a delicious evening exploring it from the perspective of food.
At the elegant Jefferson Hotel a few short blocks from the White House, retired Georgetown University professor and Jefferson Hotel historian Dr. Susan Lagon led confrères and guests on a sumptuous seven-course journey through the foods served by the Founders of the United States between 1776 and the 1820’s. Ralf Schlegel, the Jefferson’s Executive Chef, curated the evening’s dinner, which showcased his contemporary presentations of foods the Founders would have served their most distinguished guests. Chef Schlegel’s imagination and technical mastery, which were on full display during the dinner, earned the Jefferson’s Plume restaurant a Michelin star. With each course, Dr. Lagon shared engaging stories of how the founders entertained and enjoyed the ingredients and dishes on the evening’s menu. Her lively (and educational) historical notes are included at the end of this article.
Members and guests gathered at the Jefferson’s Plume Bar with a glass of J M Sélèque Le Quintette NV Champagne. Featuring chardonnay from vines planted between 1950 and 1990, this blanc de blanc is produced organically, with wild yeast and fermentation at lower temperatures. Vitrification in 60% oak barrels and blending with 20% reserve wine yields a delightfully crisp Champagne with nice minerality that wonderfully complemented Chef Schlegel’s passed hors d’oeuvres. His velvety smooth duck egg royale was presented on truffle oil pearls and decadently garnished with shaved winter truffle. Green-tea-cured king salmon was served in a crisp house-made potato chip with ginger – a crunchy and flavorful bite.
Diners took their seats in the Federalist-style Gallatin Room where an amuse bouche of shrimp and garlic and a glass of Pierre Péters Cuvée de Réserve Brut welcomed them. A drizzle of garlic butter was a great accent to the colossal prawn – a preparation similar to a recipe used at Mount Vernon by George and Martha Washington. The Péters Champagne is100% chardonnay, produced with at least 40% reserve wine from a perpetual reserve begun in 1988. Its creamy texture and clean flavors paired wonderfully with the shrimp.
Dinner began with an innovative and delicious dish of Orchard Point oysters served with hazelnut milk and a quenelle of iced beurre blanc– a truly inspired reinvention of this classic sauce. A decadently generous portion of Ossetra caviar finished the composition. A luxury today, oysters were quite common for the founders and were a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis 1er Cru Vau de Vey 2017 capably illustrated why pairing oysters and Chablis is such a classic. This wine, one of the top-rated from its appellation, is notable for its intense acidity layered with hints of honey, creating a complexity that was outstanding with the dish.
Next was black salsify and Seckel pear, served with goat milk yogurt, flax seed cracker, winter mâché, and pear balsamic. This refreshing course was a symphony of flavors and textures and was particularly nice with a glass of Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Ried Steinsetz 2015. The 2015 vintage of this single vineyard wine has been described as “the most glorious vintage ever” – more lush and sweet than usual – making it particularly well suited for the pear and yogurt elements of this course.
Virginia black bass with kohlrabi spaghetti, chervil aïoli, and blue crab nage followed. This fish was popular in the era of the founders. In fact, George Washington operated three seine-net fisheries on the Potomac River for 40 years, his most profitable venture at Mount Vernon. The chef demonstrated his mastery of technique with a beautifully cooked filet and sophisticated sauce, with the al dente kohlrabi lending a delicious complementary texture to the dish. Loimer Riesling 2012 was a great match. (Loimer, coincidently, is located just two miles from the Schloss Gobelsburg from the previous course.) This single-vineyard wine is aged in acacia barrels and boasts a very fragrant nose and notes of white fruits – exceptional with the delicate fish and robust nage.
Partridge breast stuffed with foie gras and truffle followed. Partridge and other game birds were popular with the founders, and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are known to have enjoyed foie gras in Paris. Chef Schlegel’s partridge, accented with a tasty grape juice reduction, was meaty and flavorful. Grilled Belgian endive completed the dish. With 100% Graciano grapes from a single vineyard in Laserna, Spain, Viñedos del Contino Rioja Contino Graciano 2006 is aged for 15 months in new French and Hungarian oak barrels, resulting in a vibrant wine with a hint of smoke that paired beautifully with the partridge.
The final savory course was braised beef short rib with a rutabaga latke and savory cabbage. Beef was an extravagance in the founders’ time, and the chef’s modern interpretation was superb. The short rib was meltingly tender, the latke was delicious, and the lightly cooked cabbage provided a tasty counterpoint to the rich beef. Bold, with hints of cassis and plums, Château Daugay Saint-Êmilion Grand Cru 2009 was a great choice with this perfect-for-winter course. This Bordeaux blend of 50% merlot, 40% cabernet franc, and 10% cabernet sauvignon is aged in 35% new French oak barrels for 18 months before bottling.
Sugar was an expensive ingredient in the time of the founders, making desserts a sign of wealth that were served to show generosity toward one’s guests. Chef Schlegel concluded dinner with a generous presentation of two sweet treats. The chocolate pot de crème, made with Valrhona 70% chocolate, was deliciously accompanied by a crunchy gingerbread crouton and orange sorbet. That was followed by a Meyer lemon almond petite gâteau – a fluffy genoise sponge with marzipan and a crispy sheet of maple syrup – served with maple syrup ice cream, maple syrup pearls, and lemon gel – all flavors that the founders would recognize and relish. Oremus Late Harvest Késöi Szüret Tokaji Cuvée 2015 from Hungary was notable for its restrained sweetness and great acidity, making it superb with both desserts. Oremus was founded in the 1620s and this wine, a blend of furmint along with kövérszőlő, zéta, and sárga muskotály grapes, is aged for six months in small barrels in a labyrinth of hand-hewn cellars dating back to the 12th century.
Dinner may have concluded, but the conversation did not as members and guests compared notes on their favorite course, the superb wine parings, and especially Dr. Lagon’s fascinating insight into the history of the foods they had just enjoyed and the how the founders would haveserved them. Bailli Judy Mazza thanked the service staff with Chaîne pins and presented Dr. Lagon with a Certificate of Appreciation from the bailliage for sharing her expertise and enriching the evening for all.
Dr. Susan Lagon’s historical notes on the foods the founders served their most distinguished guests:
Duck Egg Royal, Winter Truffle: Larger than a chicken egg with an especially large yolk, duck eggs were a treat at elegant dinners. Then as now, truffles were guaranteed to impress guests. Benjamin Franklin served them at his seven‑course feasts in Paris. Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef James Hemings served them while Jefferson was ambassador to France and later to Alexander Hamilton and James Madison at the famous “dinner table bargain” in New York.
Green Tea Cured King Salmon, Ginger, Potato Chip: American colonists were so fond of green tea that they protested the tax imposed by the British by dumping 45 tons of it into Boston Harbor in 1773. They called it “bullet tea” because it was shaped like bullets when shipped. The Founders served Atlantic salmon on both sides of the Atlantic but did not encounter King Salmon until the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the Pacific coast. Today, the King (aka Chinook) Salmon is the state fish of Oregon. Ginger was popular but used almost exclusively in baked goods. Among the items appearing in the monthly accounts of Benjamin Franklin’s maître d’ Jacques Finck were black pepper, dry mustard, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, coriander, garlic, saffron, and vanilla beans. While in France, Franklin attended an “all-potato dinner” hosted by potato promoter Antoine-Augustin Parmentier in 1778 and became a vocal proponent of the tuber’s nutritional value.
Shrimp with Garlic: Mt. Vernon’s website boasts an authentic recipe for shrimp with garlic that George and Martha Washington served. Shrimp were plentiful off the coasts of North and South Carolina as well as Georgia. When President Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, he expanded shrimp harvesting to the Gulf Coast. It remains America’s favorite shellfish and the U.S. harvests 650 million pounds a year, more than any other country. Even so, much of the shrimp consumed today is imported. Garlic was a staple and grew easily up and down the east coast.
Oysters: The original fast food, enjoyed by rich and poor alike. Jefferson ate 50 oysters at two dinners in a row in Holland, but pronounced American oysters “far superior.” James Madison and his wife Dolley served oysters to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824 at their Virginia home, Montpelier. The richest source was the Chesapeake Bay although they were harvested up and down the east coast. Orchard Point is a family-owned operation in Kent County, MD, on the Chester River.
Beurre Blanc: A stew stove would be required to emulsify the butter and wine or vinegar properly. Most cooking was still done over an open hearth, but the White House was equipped with a coal-fired stove necessary to prepare delicate sauces. Jefferson brought back a stew stove from France to his home at Monticello.
Hazelnuts: Robert Prince established the first commercial nursery in Flushing, NY, in 1737. George Washington sent armed guards to protect it during the Revolutionary War. Just after Washington was elected president in 1789, he visited the nursery via river barge.
Black Salsify: Also known as “scorzonera,” black salsify is rarer and tastier than the more common white salsify. Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph published one of the first American cookbooks (The Virginia Housewife) in 1824 and wrote of salsify, “They are a very excellent vegetable, but require nicety in cooking.”
Seckel Pears: The only truly American variety, it was not introduced from European cultivars but likely originated from wild seedlings discovered near Philadelphia in the early 1800s.
Goat Milk Yogurt: Milking goats arrived in Jamestown, VA, and Plymouth, MA, with the earliest settlers.
Flax Seed Cracker: Flax was very important to the early republic, but more for its fiber than its culinary value. Flax could be spun into linen in the north while cotton produced cloth in the south. Flax was prized for clothing, bedding, and especially sails. Dolley Madison was known for creating the role of “First Lady,” being a wonderful hostess, and serving a “seed cake” in which she used caraway seeds and possibly flax seed as well.
Winter Mâche: One of the few tender greens that grows in winter, we know that Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson all served it to guests while they were in Paris.
Virginia Black Bass: Black bass are the most popular freshwater game fish in the world and the mid-Atlantic is one of the best places to catch them. For 40 years, George Washington operated three seine-net fisheries on ten miles of the Potomac shoreline, processing more than a million fish a year. It was by far his most profitable venture at Mt. Vernon. A member of his household wrote that Washington “ate heartily at dinner but was not particular in his diet, with the exception of fish, of which he was excessively fond.” Perhaps he found fish easier to eat with his dentures. When he retired from office, he and his wife still hosted guests often and began to think of their home like an inn. He confessed, “My manner of living is plain…a glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready…those who expect more will be disappointed.”
Blue Crab Nage: New Englanders love their cod, southerners love their shrimp, and for those lucky enough to live in the Mid-Atlantic, the blue crab reigns supreme. Preparing seafood a la nage (“in the swim’) combines steaming and poaching in stock flavored with herbs and white wine, a technique the Founders knew well.
Partridge: We know that Washington, Adams, and Jefferson all hunted, ate, and served game birds. When the Continental Congress had to flee from the British in Philadelphia in 1777, Adams wrote that they departed quickly, “chased like a covey of partridges.” The poultry portion of the menu from Franklin’s Christmas Eve feast in France in 1783 sounds like a Christmas song: “6 thrush, 4 capons, 3 partridges, 2 chickens, 2 French hens, one pheasant, and one duck.”
Foie Gras: Thomas Jefferson arrived in Paris the same year Chef Jean-Joseph Clause obtained a patent for paté de foie gras. Just two years before, Antoine de Beauvilliers opened the first luxury restaurant in the west, La Grande Taverne de Londres. Jefferson and Franklin were both patrons, often getting take-out that included foie gras.
Braised Beef Short Rib: If anything was de rigeur for upscale meals served by the Founders, it was beef. Bouef Bouilli, Boeuf à la Mode, and Boeuf à la Daube, and many other dishes graced dining tables at home and abroad. Braised beef short ribs were served at Mt. Vernon during Washington’s time and more recently at the July 4, 2019 dinner in the Mt. Vernon Inn. The Jefferson Cookbook includes a recipe for Pot au Feu that begins, “Take 3 pounds of beef, the short ribs are the best…”
Rutabaga, Savoy Cabbage: Monticello Garden Historian Peter Hatch claims Jefferson was the first American to grow rutabaga in addition to growing 29 varieties of cabbage. Cabbage was second only to lettuce in frequency of appearances on the shopping list of Etienne Lemaire, Jefferson’s maître d’ at the White House. All of the Founders ate it and probably served it.
Desserts: Sugar came in hard cones wrapped in blue paper and was so expensive that the lady of the house often kept it locked in a special cupboard. Desserts were a sign of wealth in the early republic and it was typical that several different cakes, tarts, and puddings would be served simultaneously to show generosity towards one’s guests. Because they were special, desserts comprise a significant portion of early American cookbooks. Unlike vegetables and routine fare, cooks made them less often and were therefore less likely to know them from memory. Martha Washington made trifle with sherry and cream and for large gatherings, her enslaved cooks made a pound cake that called for 40 eggs and five pounds of butter. Dolley Madison was famous for her cake baking skills. Eliza (Schuyler) Hamilton was of Dutch ancestry and made speculoos cookies for her large family.
Valrhona Chocolate Pot de Crème: Valrhona has been producing chocolate in the village of Tain L’Hermitage in France since 1922 using cocoa beans from their own plantations in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. It is certainly more refined than the chocolate the Founders knew, which was mostly from West Africa and was sold in large blocks that would be chopped and melted to drink. John Jay carried shards of chocolate in his pockets at all times. Many people thought it had medicinal properties and it was included in soldiers’ rations during the Revolutionary War. Recently two Chinese export porcelain pots de crème pots made for Jefferson circa 1088-1810 were sold at auction.
Orange Sorbet: The Founders prized citrus fruits and iced desserts. Ice houses and underground cellars were used to store large blocks of ice hauled from rivers during the winter.
Meyer Lemon Almond Petit Gâteau: Meyer Lemons are named for Frank Meyer, the USDA botanist who discovered them in China and brought them back to the U.S. in the early 20th century. Less tart than other lemons with a bergamot fragrance, it is safe to say the Founders would have loved them. Almonds were a favorite, but they had to be imported from Europe, usually Italy. Jefferson tried, unsuccessfully, to grow almond trees at Monticello. The only place in the U.S. that grows them commercially today is California. “Petit gateaux” would have appeared often at festive dinners.
Genoa Fluffy Sponge, Lemon Jelly, Marzipan, Maple Syrup Ice Cream: The Founders would recognize and relish this dessert. Sponge cakes relied on eggs for leavening because baking powder did not come along until the 1840s. Flour, sugar, and vanilla were all expensive ingredients, ideal for demonstrating one’s standing in the community. Jellies made with fruits or wines were popular—and labor-intensive. The lemon and almond flavors were favorites. Ice cream was the ultimate in fashionable dessert courses. Alexander Hamilton first introduced it to George Washington at a dinner in New York, an event so momentous that both recorded the date: June 13, 1789. Jefferson served it frequently to delighted guests at state dinners in the White House. His favorite was vanilla and his handwritten recipe is preserved at the Library of Congress. Maple syrup was revered by the Founders for several reasons. The sugar maple tree is native to North America, an exceptionally strong hardwood, and unlike sugar cane, it did not involve slave labor to grow and harvest. Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia and a group of Quakers promoted maple sugar (derived from the syrup) as a more humane substitute for cane sugar. Jefferson joined the cause in 1790 and even speculated on the U.S. becoming an exporter of maple sugar. Ultimately the public preferred cane sugar and Jefferson turned his attention once again to France, where sugar was being made from beets.
Historical Notes © Susan Sullivan Lagon