Brief Commentary: Jefferson’s Creme Brulee

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to AmericaThomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J. Craughwell

While an interesting conceit, Craughwell manages to do very little here that we don’t already know. Here’s the gist: Jefferson, as we all know, was our epicurean, polymathic Founding Father, and he had a love for the French–their land, their plants, their people, their culture. We also know that Jefferson owned slaves, and that one particular slave family, the Hemmingses, were kin to him by marriage and quite special to him.

But did we know that Jefferson took James Hemmings to France with him during his diplomatic tenure, and that he had Hemmings trained in French haute-cuisine?

Well, no, we didn’t. And that’s an interesting story. And furthermore, the complications that are presented because of the illegality of slavery in France, and how Jefferson promises James freedom after mastering this craft, and how the slave ended up speaking fluent French while the master never could–well, that’s a very interesting story. And so, Craughwell’s book is promising.

The problem is that the story is fairly simple, if not straightforward. And furthermore, Hemmings is the most interesting character, but little is known of him. But still, a good story, an interesting narrative, something that would have made an excellent essay in one of our better high-brow magazines, like Harper’s or the New York Review or the like.

But to fill it out to book length, we’re given the same facts of Jefferson’s life we know so well, presented yet again, with no really new revelations or interpretations or angles. The Adamses and Ben Franklin show up, likely because they have to, but really do nothing. Tedious, and tediously long, explanations of French politics and the causes of the French Revolution abound, and the book just drags. The appendices, while interesting, tell you nothing you don’t learn walking through the museum at Monticello; if you’ve not been there, then they’ll be great–but ultimately, what they reveal, like what the museum at Monticello reveals, is ephemera, things that are only marginally part of the story.

Craughwell writes well enough, and tells an interesting story. But to make the story fit into a genre it doesn’t lend itself to take excessive padding and hurts the overall product. This is a great idea, and would have been a fine essay, but is a mediocre, at best, book.

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