Friday, May 03, 2013

"Is there any more mac and cheese?"

I still feel that French cooking is the most important in the world, one of the few that has rules. If you follow the rules, you can do pretty well. -- Julia Child

Never one to leave an interesting tidbit alone, I dug further into that delicious bowl of macaroni and cheese and found all kinds of yummy factual goodness about its origins. As one story goes, Thomas Jefferson brought back a pasta machine from a lengthy sojourn in Rome. This is why his daughter Martha Randolph -- the hostess of the house after his wife died -- is credited with creating the dish by combining macaroni and parmesan cheese.

That doesn't make any sense to me. Why would Martha Randolph -- or any other white woman with money and status -- even think to toil over a hot stove to "create" anything?  You and I both know that if that was the scenario, she threw that pasta maker at some anonymous slave, they came up with mac and cheese and she put her name on it because it was served at her dinner parties.  The End.

And why do historians continue to openly ignore Sally Hemings and the (at least) six children she had with Thomas Jefferson after his spouse -- her half sister Martha -- passed away? The DNA evidence is irrefutable. What's especially rich is that none of Jefferson's white heirs have ever had to prove that they are related to him. Saying so is enough.

Interestingly, I tripped up over this book -- Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America, by Thomas J. Craughwell -- that was a real foodie curiousity.  Apparently, it was Jefferson that brought French cuisine to America, not Julia Child. Who knew? James Hemings -- his deceased wife Martha's 19 year old half-brother -- was promised his freedom if he stayed in France long enough to learn how to cook and bake Jefferson's favorite things. He was then required to teach another chef how to make them. It took Jefferson 11 years to make good on that promise. (Hm. I don't suppose I'd be so giddy to let my freshly trained chef waltz out of my life, either.)

Jefferson was in Paris for several years as US Ambassador to France.  He was also learning important things like how to grow grapes to make his favorite wines. From what I've read, he really loved his bordeaux.  Here's a colorful aside: a 14 year old Sally Hemings was there, too -- as a handmaid to Jefferson's youngest daughter Mary. (Yes, that would make his kid Sally's niece, for those of you keeping score at home.)  While she was in France, Sally wound up pregnant with Jefferson's baby. (Insert *gasp* here.) And now you know the rest of the story. Or do you?

The good news is that once the smoke cleared, Mr. Hemings started his own catering business. The bad news? Five years after he was freed, he committed suicide at the age of 36, in Baltimore Maryland.

All that, so Jefferson could drink delicious wine and eat in high style -- and thanks to a well-cultivated vineyard and all those chefs James Hemings trained, he most certainly did, even after he was completely bereft of funds.

Something to think about, the next time you tuck into a bowl of mac & cheese.

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