I'm a little behind in my reviewing...
Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J. Craughwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The fact that Thomas Jefferson introduced macaroni and cheese to America is relatively well-known -- maybe it's just the nerdy circles I travel in, but it's one of those pieces of trivia that seems to be tossed around with some regularity. But did you know that Jefferson tried to smuggle rice out of Italy, or that he tried to establish olive-growing in South Carolina?
This thin volume touches on a number of different topics. Far from simply being a culinary history, it covers a lot of ground: Jefferson's experiences as a diplomat alongside Benjamin Franklin and John Adams (one of my takeaways from this section: "minister plenipotentiary," what we would now call an "ambassador," is one of the most impressive-sounding job titles around), the beginnings of the French Revolution, race relations in eighteenth-century France, Virginia plantation life, the Jefferson family, and more. The book provides an overview of a number of these subjects, but I was really left wanting more; I see more reading about several of these topics in my future.
The historical record of James Hemings's life is quite thin, but what little material there is provides a fascinating look at not only Jefferson's foray into French cuisine and entertaining styles, but also into the life of a man who was, as far as slaves go, quite privileged. James Hemings and his siblings were fathered by Jefferson's father-in-law, and of course by now everyone knows about the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, James's younger sister (though the events in this book predate that); the dynamic between the Jeffersons and the Hemingses sounded quite interesting to me. The book The Hemingses of Monticello has crossed my path several times; I may be compelled to pick it up now.
I would recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in early American history, or in pre-Revolution French life. Because the book just sort of scratches the surface of a number of different topics, it provides valuable context without getting bogged down -- and if you're at all like me, your interest will be piqued and you'll want to check out one or more of the books in the rather extensive bibliography that Craughwell provides.
And also, if you're at all like me, you'll come away from the book craving macaroni and cheese in the worst way.
Review copy provided by Quirk Books. Thank you!
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