Francophilia, Food, and Freedom at Jefferson’s Monticello

17, February 2014

On February 10, President Obama and French president Francois Hollande visited Monticello, the historic estate of Francophile Thomas Jefferson. For both presidents, this was their first visit to Jefferson's estate. Monticello is rich in history and, in many ways, quite telling of a relationship between France and the United States. The enslaved cooks at Monticello also left their imprint on this narrative. It was of Edith Fossett’s cooking that Daniel Webster spoke when he described the meals at Monticello as "in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance."

kitchen at Thomas Jefferson's monticelloThe kitchen at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Philip Beaurline.

In 1784, James Hemings traveled to Paris as Thomas Jefferson’s servant, to learn French cookery. When Hemings returned to Monticello in 1789, he instructed his brother, Peter Hemings, on what he'd learned. Jefferson continued to ensure that enslaved cooks were trained to prepare food in the French culinary tradition. For example, three enslaved women from Monticello—Ursula Hughes, Edith Fossett, and Fanny Hern—did not travel to France, but rather to the Jefferson’s home in Washington. In 1801, Jefferson hired French chef Honoré Julien. Later that year, Hughes arrived, followed by Fossett (1802) and Hern (1806). These three bondswomen learned the art of French cuisine, including recipes, cooking equipment, serving tools, and service. Though Jefferson did not pay them a wage, they received a gratuity of two dollars each month. By 1809, Fossett and Hern returned to Monticello and replaced Peter Hemings as chief cooks, where they worked as domestic servants in the kitchen throughout Jefferson’s retirement. 

What did this training mean to the enslaved men and women? For James Hemings, it meant his freedom. For the others, it meant benefitting from the special status bestowed upon slaves at the pinnacle of the slave community. This status permitted access to earn money, better clothing, and perhaps better housing accommodations. Yet, the celebrated slaves gained more than this in exchange for their mastery of preparing boeuf a la daube and other famed dishes featured at the fancy dinner parties on the mountaintop. From my experience with French as my second language, I can speculate that these enslaved bondspeople acquired some sense of the French language necessary to articulate components of the recipes (especially that for which there is no English equivalent). They also gained knowledge of French technology of the time. While many enslaved cooks in the American South toiled over large, hot, open hearths, those who worked at the White House and at Monticello used a built-in stew stove, which is easier to control the temperature than a large fireplace. The kitchen in which they worked also had a large clock that they used to monitor their cooking times and speeds. In Hemings’s case, he lived in France for five years legally as a free person. For the others, their training in French cuisine, language, and cosmopolitan culture brought them closer to a larger world outside enslaved life at Monticello. I only speculate that with the culinary training, language acquisition, and proficiency in technology that they shared a sense of freedom like Hemings, even if only conceptual.

Images from inside the Paradox of Liberty exhibitVisitors to the Missouri History Museum can learn more about the lives of enslaved people in Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello, a traveling exhibit open until March 2.
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Edith Fossett's extraordinary talent and sense of freedom manifested into material freedom.  At the time of Jefferson’s death in 1827, she was sold at the dispersal sale of his estate. Her husband, Joseph, was one of five slaves manumitted in Jefferson’s will. With the help of her husband and his family, Edith Fossett was freed in 1837. Together they settled in Cincinnati, where they worked to purchase the freedom of their children. Edith Fossett and her family maintained their commitment to freedom, helping those still in bondage escape by participating in the Underground Railroad. By 1850, two of her children were considered among the most prominent caterers in Cincinnati.

The legacy of Edith Fossett and the enslaved cooks at Monticello whose “half French” and “half Virginian” culinary genre has endured since the times of Jefferson and Lafayette through Obama and Hollande. While Monday’s dinner service was not in the parlor, the menu resonates with the imprint of the creative cooks who melded two culinary styles.

 —Tandra Taylor, K–12 Educational Interpreter Intern