Back of the house: Monticello's kitchen works

dish-jeffersonkitchen-a-webMonticello's kitchen comes to life. PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR

Dish had a chance recently to enjoy a bite to eat in Thomas Jefferson’s renovated kitchen, and to visit his restored wine cellar, projects that are part of a new exhibition at Monticello called "Crossroads," which will attempt to bring to life the cellar-level intersection between Jefferson’s day-to-day life above and the lives of the enslaved servants, chefs, and house mangers below.

The new kitchen features an elaborate stew stove along the front wall, an idea Jefferson brought back from France, which features eight individual "burners,” much like a modern cooking range, with only embers below as the heat source. There’s also lots of copper cookware, a prep bench, and many task-specific items, like a long, rectangular pot used exclusively for fish.

“This was Jefferson’s idea of a modern kitchen,” says Leni Sorensen, Monticello’s African American Research Historian, who also happens to be a culinary historian and pretty good hearth chef. “The trick to this kind of cooking was to move pots around, or shift the embers, to get the right amount of heat,” she says.

The kitchen also has a beautiful clock, which Sorensen says was crucial for keeping things on schedule.

“Every day was a web of choreographic activity,” says Sorensen, describing the ordering of supplies, the curing, cooking, and boiling of meats, harvesting vegetables, and preparing meals on time.

“It wasn’t just people boiling things in pots,” says Justin Sarafin, who coordinated the restoration of the kitchen and the servant areas. “There was a level of sophistication in what they were doing down here.”

dish-winecellar-webJefferson's wine cellar will soon be open to the public. PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR

Indeed, Jefferson’s first chef, James Hemings, was trained in Paris, and the unique style of American/French cooking was handed down to other enslaved chefs like Francis Hern and Edith Fossett.

Sorensen treated Dish to a salad made from greens from the Monticello gardens, fresh apple juice, and some mac and cheese made from an original Jefferson recipe prepared by caterer Sandy Motley.  Sorensen made yummy cookies topped with lemon curd. Delish!

Later, we toured the restored wine cellar, which was actually the first cellar Jefferson built when he started construction on the main house.

“Perhaps that shows its level of importance to Jefferson,” Sarafin jokes.

Indeed, the man loved his wine. Instead of buying casks, which was the customary way to buy wine, Jefferson ordered his wine in bottles directly from France. As Sarafin points out, the aging of wine wasn’t much of a priority back then, as was simply keeping a steady stock cool and ready to drink.

The cellar also features a renovated dumbwaiter Jefferson used to have wine bottles sent upstairs to the dinning room.

Sarafin believes Jefferson may have liked the theatricality of producing bottles of wine from the side of the fireplace, but another Monticello curator, Elizabeth Chew, said it also kept the number of servants in the dinning room to a minimum, creating the casual, French style of dining that Jefferson preferred.

Finally, the Jefferson dining room features a stunner. For 75 years the walls of the dining room have been light blue, but thanks to new technologies that have been able to determine what color the room really was in Jefferson’s time, the walls have just been painted a bright, golden yellow.

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Thanks for the clarification. I've make the corrections in the text above. Unfortunately, the older version already ran in print, but proper credit will be preserved online here for posterity.

Dave McNair

I am very glad you had a good time in our kitchen and seeing the Crossroads Exhibit. But I must make a correction! The wonderful food, the mac and cheese and the salad were created by Sandy Motley not me - credit must go where it is so well deserved. I did make the cookies and lemon curd and got to talk to you all about food at Monticello.

now THAT was a good article. thanks guys!