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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!