Founding Flavors

What did Thomas Jefferson eat while planning a revolution? Turns out the author of the Declaration of Independence was a fruit-and-vegetables type of guy.

July 03, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

To the servers at Philadelphia's City Tavern, Thomas Jefferson was a regular.

Week after week that spring and summer of 1776, they'd see the tall man with the reddish hair and courtly manners stepping in from Second Street for a drink or a meal. Something big was doing a few blocks away at the State House, but exactly what connection Jefferson had with all that would not be widely known for many years by anyone, much less the City Tavern staff. Mostly, the guy was a customer.

Because even when you're busy orchestrating the brilliant rhetorical crescendo of Enlightenment thinking called the Declaration of Independence, you gotta eat.

Jefferson's 18th-century contemporary, the gastronomic pioneer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, said, "Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are." The maxim applies nicely to the Sage of Monticello, whose table habits followed not only his interests in farming and all things French, but also the spirit of Jeffersonian contradiction.

This champion of the common man was no slouch when it came to living and entertaining like royalty. Nor was this critic of European decadence shy about indulging his passion for French wine.

For a gourmet and wine aficionado like Jefferson, Philadelphia was about as good a place as any in the Colonies. The New World's biggest city was home to more than 100 taverns in 1776; some served food, all served alcohol. By one historian's account, Colonial Philadelphians collectively used 150 expressions for drunkenness - "tann'd," "bowz'd," "buskey" among the rest.

Spices, coffee and sugar emerged from ships arriving at the city port on the Delaware River. The ships also carried barrels of wine from Madeira, Lisbon and elsewhere in Europe. There was French brandy, and, of course, West Indian rum.

"Pd. at Smith's for punch 2/6 (two shillings, six pence)" is the note Jefferson made on May 18, 1776, in his memorandum book, the first of many notations referring to Daniel Smith's City Tavern, where Jefferson kept a running tab. Perhaps the beverage he purchased that day was something like the blend of brandy, rum, whiskey and apple cider called City Tavern Cooler, appearing in the restaurant's cookbook.

The place was razed in 1854, 20 years after it was heavily damaged by fire. In 1976, in time for bicentennial celebrations, a reconstructed replica of City Tavern opened in its original location near the Philadelphia waterfront.

In a city of taverns, the original was the biggest and best of its day. Completed in late 1773 as a project of the city's most prestigious men, City Tavern was no place for common folks. An aristocrat by temperament and upbringing if not political persuasion, Jefferson was drawn to the place. In the Independence summer, he took most of his meals there.

"Pd. dinner at Smith's 6/ (six shillings)" is the note of June 13, which, give or take a day or two, is when Jefferson began writing the Declaration. As a member of a Continental Congress subcommittee assigned to produce an independence proclamation, Jefferson - considered the group's master stylist - was named chief writer.

During the next two weeks he took breaks from the momentous task to run errands. The short memoranda, which Jefferson made in the blank pages of a Robert Aitken Philadelphia Almanack, show that he bought knives, a pair of spurs, a pair of stockings and a straw hat. He took a short stroll over to Isaac Greentree's tavern for wine.

And, of course, he ate. But what, exactly?

Hard to say, as tavern meals were served family-style. Big tables were set with platters from which customers would serve themselves, choosing from whatever the house offered that day.

Walter Staib, City Tavern's current chef and proprietor, says that aside from reductions in fat, salt and sugar, the recipes in the tavern cookbook reliably represent what might have been served in the spring and summer of 1776.

"Everything we do here is researched" in connection with historians at the National Park Service and at Jefferson's homestead, Monticello, says Staib.

Surely Jefferson did not become extravagantly epicurean until he had spent some years in Europe, particularly France, which he first visited in 1784. But in 1774 his so-called Garden Book was already reflecting his lifelong interest in fruit and vegetables.

Jefferson was forever experimenting in the fields of Monticello, especially as he discovered fruit and vegetables on his European travels. He would wonder: Could these foods be grown in America?

"No vegetable was too exotic," says historian Marshall W. Fishwick, "none too commonplace for this agrarian-epicure. Succory, endive, Spanish onions, savoys, turnips, various beans, sugar beets. He insisted on having them all in his garden."

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