As summer begins, new cooking and eating habits begin to form: fresh produce from gardens and orchards become more widely available, but how have our practices changed alongside technological and economic developments? For most Americans, the store racks, and now even online grocers, have eliminated the agricultural pleasures, ponderings, and plenty of personal gardens, let alone transforming our access to supplies of organic food.
One of the foremost thinkers of his age and in our nation’s history, Thomas Jefferson certainly had his opinions about the food served at his home in Monticello. Peter J. Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello since 1977, explains the culinary, agricultural, and cultural history of gardening in the Jeffersonian age in the newly published, “A Rich Spot of Earth”: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello. The short excerpt below describes the summertime tastes for salads and dressing, quite useful for inspiration on what vegetables to mix into a new dish.
Boiled lettuce, “much superior to spinach,” according to Bernard McMahon, was popular in the age of Jefferson. Writers recommended coarse and milky-sapped summer leaves or overgrown cabbage-type heads for boiling or soups. It seems possible that Jefferson’s insistence from 1809 to 1813 on sowing lettuces in May, June, and July was to “dress” or cook his summer lettuce rather than to eat it “raw.” Jefferson preferred lettuces that “loafed” or headed, perhaps in a more casual manner than iceberg lettuces form heads today, to lettuce “greens,” which formed the majority of the lettuce purchased from the Washington markets. Whatever their final shape, lettuce’s usual destination was the salad bowl, sometimes mixed with a bouquet of greens including spinach, orach, corn salad, endive, pepper grass, French sorrel, and sprouts. According to Mary Randolph, lettuce was gathered with other greens early in the morning, laid in cold water, sometimes including ice, and only removed hours later at dinner. Randolph’s salad dressing included oil, common and tarragon vinegar, hard-boiled egg yolks, mustard, sugar, and salt. Salads were garnished with sliced egg whites and scallions. The goal advocated by eighteenth-century English author Richard Bradley was to blend “hot” or bitter greens like cress, mustard, celery, and tarragon with “cool and insipid” lettuce, spinach, corn salad, and turnips. The ancient Romans used a dressing of hot oil and vinegar, and Landon Carter adapted this by mixing his “salad” with melted butter and vinegar. Food historian Karen Hess concludes that green salads were eaten before the main meal in nondrinking cultures but after the meal when wine was served, perhaps providing a hint as to the schedule of the salad course at Monticello, where wine was, according to Jefferson, “an indispensable to my health.”
We’re curious to know what summer recipes you have from your own garden; even more eager to share new ideas from “A Rich Spot of Earth,” so definitely tell us in the comments below what you would do with these ingredients, and what you would add from your own vegetable stock.
Text excerpted from “A Rich Spot of Earth”: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello. Copyright © 2012 by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.