a culinary visit to Monticello and the “working gardens”

by Stevie on October 29, 2009

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We had the good fortune to visit Monticello this past week with my longtime friend, Callie. You probably already know that Monticello, which apparently means “little mountain” in Italian, so you pronounce it with an Italian accent like Monti-chello, was the home of the third U.S. President and writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.

fall foliage at Monticello

fall foliage at Monticello

We went in the fall. It’s lovely throughout the year but somehow the golden yellow, candy orange and bright red leaves on the sugar maple trees made it truly postcard perfect. We took the tour of the house. President Jefferson sounds a little intense. He had a clock in every single room of the mansion at a period when nobody had them. It’s clear that he liked to be busy. A very accomplished linguist, he spoke or read seven languages. Of course he had a glorious career as a statesman and politician. And, it turns out, he was an amateur, or “self-taught” as they said on the tour, architect. Since he was also blessed with a lot of money, he had the chance to run wild with Monticello. He spent about forty years building and tearing down the place. The final product is marvelous. I just wish that we could have seen the second floor where his daughter and her eleven children lived. I’ve taken this tour three or four times but they never show that. Boo-hoo!

the Monticello kitchen lacked many modern things, like running water!

the Monticello kitchen lacked many modern things, like running water!

We were especially excited about the decorative and so-called working gardens. Jefferson lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This was the age of Enlightenment, not modern technology. Most everything was done by hand. He famously had a large staff of slaves which has become a source of great controversy in the past decade or two. Be that as it may, the kitchen was a real eye-opener. I didn’t see any running water or time-saving devices anywhere. They grew most of their food, hence the gardens.

scenic view of Jefferson's working gardens

scenic view of Jefferson's working gardens

Our guide told us while looking at the opulent dining room in the Great House that Jefferson liked vegetables so much that he supposedly said something like “I eat meat as a condiment for my vegetables.” That was something that the WC crew understood. Jefferson was also completely enamored by French cuisine, perhaps from the time he spent living in Paris. I don’t know how his staff managed! This was way before Julia Child brought French cooking to the everyday American household.

French cuisine invaded America long before Julia Child

French cuisine invaded America long before Julia Child

Historians and archeologists have re-planted the gardens on a plan similar to how they think it was in the Jeffersonian era. We saw okra, peanut, tarragon, Italian parsley, asparagus, artichoke, carrot, collard greens, radish, cayenne pepper, castor bean, corn and many others. Just below this terraced garden were some fruit orchards and grapevines with numerous French and Italian varietals. I imagine that they tried making their own wines there on the mountain. We’d just gone to Tarara in Northern Virginia so I believe that with some effort that his wines could be very good.

okra at Jefferson's garden

okra at Jefferson's garden

The setting is magnificent. There were ancient linden and colorful maple trees shading our path. The mountain across the way looked manicured like a beautiful English garden. We paid our respects at the Jefferson family cemetery, still owned by some of his descendents. We left feeling uplifted and delighted by the scenery, the rich history and the wonder of the perfect autumn day. Good work, Mr. President!

corn in Jefferson's garden

corn in Jefferson's garden

cayenne at Jefferson's garden

cayenne at Jefferson's garden

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Connie Hester October 29, 2009 at 11:48 am

Been to Monticello twice, but never in the fall. We hope to make that trip sometime in the next year or two. Wonderful pictures and some telling of Jefferson’s life. We think Monticello is one of the most beautiful places in this country.

ritatower October 29, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Wow, I love the story and the cayenne at the garden. I didn’t know he liked French food; that is so fantastic, so he had good taste! He’s lucky he had people to maintain those gardens and cook the delicious organic foods!

Heguiberto October 30, 2009 at 7:51 am

Connie

We’ve been to Monticello in the Summertime before. That’s a lot fo fun, too, though super hot. The gardens and flowers are wonderful then. It was great seeing the place in the fall because of the autumn leaves but the vegetable gardens were for the most part overgrown. We did think that the huge Autumn okra bursting with seeds was cool. Thanks for your comment!

Mrs Joe Orton October 31, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Loved the photos and the reminiscences of Charlottesville and Monticello!

The fall colours are spectacular there, and the sun can be so mild and sweet in October.

Great to see photos of the WC team and Callie as well.

Mrs Joe Orton
Toronto

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