THE FOUNDING FOODIES by DAVE DeWITT

The originally foodies—it may surprise you to learn—were none other than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Now, many of us are aware of Jefferson’s culinary expertise—but Washington and Franklin? Did you know they were foodies too?

Dave DeWitt, whose name I recognized from The Complete Chili Pepper Book and the Chili Pepper Encyclopedia, is the author of “THE FOUNDING FOODIES” subtitled “How Washington, Jefferson and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine, published in 2010 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Dave DeWitt is a leading food expert who has authored quite a few books and has appeared everywhere from the Today show to Mythbusters. He has also been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, USA Today, and approximately 200 newspapers across the country.

Recognizing the name of Dave DeWitt, I went scurrying to my book shelves to do some checking. I remembered the name of Dewitt from Chile Pepper Magazine and found a copy of “Hot & Spicy Chili” written by DeWitt, Mary Jane Wilson & Melissa T. Stock. As I surmised, DeWitt has written quite a few other books as well. This ain’t his first rodeo! And, I can’t prove it—but I think I have, buried in my filing cabinet a letter of approval that Dave DeWitt wrote to me after I did a review of one of his cookbooks for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange some years ago.

Writes DeWitt, “In April 1962, two months before I graduated from James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia, President John F. Kennedy, at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere, paid homage to Thomas Jefferson’s wide-ranging interests and talents when he remarked, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Five months later, I was enrolled at Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village, the University of Virginia, and was living in Echol’s Hall as an Echol’s Scholar.
To say that Jefferson was-and still is-worshipped at the university is an understatement. His legacy lingers everywhere, from the serpentine walls he designed for the gardens to the buildings he modeled after Greco-Roman structures and the statues of him and of George Washington opposite each other on the lawn. The story went that, if a virginal woman passed between the two statues, Mr. Washington would bow to Mr. Jefferson.”

DeWitt writes that his education at the university where he majored in English and took creative writing courses-ultimately led to his writing career, but not before a radical change in focus. He would study and write about his first loves, food history and cooking. [Heavy sigh – if only food history had been available when I was going to school. –sls]

Jefferson became DeWitt’s most significant hero. After he graduated from the university in 1966, he knew from the history he had absorbed that Thomas Jefferson was the ultimate multitalented and multidimensional historical figure. “But” he writes, “I didn’t know about his love of food and wine until many years later, when I began to read more history, especially more food history. Jefferson’s name appeared time and time again in the history of wine, horticulture, and food importation. While working on Da Vinci’s Kitchen, I consulted Silvano Serventi and Françoise Sabban’s Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food and discovered that Jefferson was widely credited with being the first American to import pasta into the new United States. It wasn’t precisely true, but that did it-I was hooked…”

During DeWitt’s subsequent research, he realized that the story of early American food and wine was not just about Jefferson but also included Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and many obscure but brilliant individuals who became his “founding foodies.” DeWitt decided that this was a food history that had to be written, but there were obstacles.

The first and most important challenge was the lingering reputation of colonial-era food-it was not good at all, according to most accounts.

But in 1977, DeWitt notes, “Food historians John Hess and Karen Hess wrote this in The Taste of America: “Thus, in this bicentennial period, such quasi-official historians as Daniel J. Boorstin and James Beard assure us that we have never had it so good-that Colonial Americans were primitives and ignoramuses in matters gastronomic. The truth is almost precisely to the contrary. The Founding Fathers were as far superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they were in the quality of their prose and of their intelligence.”

My research proves that the Hess theory is true, and what I’ve learned has opened a window into the past culinary triumphs of those founding foodies.

(Food historians John & Karen Hess not only wrote “The Taste of America” – Karen Hess is the transcriber of “MARTHA WASHINGTON’S BOOKE OF COOKERY” published in 1995 by Columbia University Press, and the crown jewel in my food history collection,. The Carolina Rice Kitchen, published in 1992 and invaluable to me when I was writing “Our African Heritage” for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange.)

DeWitt continues, “After I developed the concept for this book, I returned to the University of Virginia in 2007 to participate in a tour of Virginia vineyards conducted by the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. The program was excellent, with a private tour of Monticello and the location of Jefferson’s failed vineyards. There were lectures on Jefferson’s influence on wine and wine making in the United States, and we saw a very nicely produced PBS video documentary titled The Cultivated Life: Thomas Jefferson and Wine. While I was in Virginia, I also took a tour of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the restored gristmill and distillery, and I was impressed by the detailed exhibits that revealed Washington’s importance in colonial whiskey making, farming, and ranching.

The return to Virginia gave me a renewed sense of both place and history. My journey to write Founding Foodies has been long, but that now seems fitting, because I knew I had finally learned enough to attempt such a challenging project.

The term foodie encompasses a devotion to food in its many contexts. I’ve decided to use the word foodie in this book because I have been unable to find a better, more inclusive term that describes food devotion. Gourmet applies in only some cases of food devotion, not, for example, to people who devoted their lives to agricultural experimentation to find better crops.

Likewise, epicure, gastronome, and gourmand do not work in the broad contexts that this book explores.
So what is a foodie? The restaurant critic Gael Greene coined the term foodie in the early 1980s, and it moved into common usage when foodies became the targets-and the heroes-of Ann Barr and Paul Levy’s 1984 book The Official Foodie Handbook. In that prescient and hilarious work, the authors defined a foodie as “a person who is very, very, very interested in food. Foodies are the ones talking about food in any gathering-salivating over restaurants, recipes, radicchio. They don’t think they are being trivial-foodies consider food to be an art, on a level with painting or drama…The purpose of life is eating well.”

Well, if you have been reading—and collecting—food history books for any length of time, you would sure know about Thomas Jefferson’s keen interest in fruits, vegetables, wines—and bringing some of his discoveries in Europe home to the United States.

Jefferson might not have been so capable of bringing some of those foods home with him nowadays with the stringent custom inspectors – although he was successful in smuggling rice out of Italy and sent it to the South Carolina Society for Promoting Agriculture—even though the penalty was death for smuggling that strain of rice out of Italy. (I guess first you had to catch the smuggler).

I don’t want to give too much away but would like to just comment on a few things. Writes DeWitt “Jefferson’s five years in Paris left a legacy of culinary “fakelore” according to food historian Andrew F. Smith. One of these was the myth that he introduced vanilla and macaroni to the United States and invented ice cream. Small quantities of vanilla beans had been imported to the United States from France prior to Jefferson’s time there, but he did enjoy it and later imported it to Monticello. Macaroni, an early genetic term for pasta, came to the United States from England as noodles in early colonial times; however Jefferson may have been the first American to import a pasta machine from Italy. Italians had invented ice cream in the sixteenth century. But both Washington and Jefferson imported ice-cream makers. These myths are all false, but what is true is that Jefferson was a passionate student of various foods, wines, and cooking techniques. For example in his letter to John Adams on November 27, 1785, he wrote extensively about chocolate and Portuguese wine and the impact these two items could have in America….”

[for more information about this, you will have to buy the book!]

Along with a fascinating foodie history, DeWitt includes recipes re-creating the recipes of the founding foodies and in the Appendix offers recommended historical sites and restaurants. I have never been to Washington, D.C. and can’t think of anything more tantalizing or enjoyable than the prospect of visiting historical sites and restaurants. For foodies such as myself, “The Founding Foodies” is a “must” for your collection.

“THE FOUNDING FOODIES” by Dave DeWitt was published in 2010 by Sourcebooks. Inc. It is available at Amazon.com, new, for $11.55 or pre-owned starting at $4.10. I also found it starting at 4.15 for pre owned copies on Alibris.com.

As for Dave DeWitt – he is the author or co-author of the following:

THE COMPLETE CHILI PEPPER BOOK (with Paul Bosland)

THE SPICY FOOD LOVER’S BIBLE (with Nancy Gerlach)

DA VINCI’S KITCHEN: A SECRET HISTORY OF ITALIAN CUISINE

THE CHILE PEPPER ENCYCLOPEDIA

BARBECUE INFERNO (with Nancy Gerlach)

A WORLD OF CURRIES (with Arthur Pais)

HOT & SPICY CHILI (with Mary Jane Wilan & Melissa t. Stock)

HOT & SPICY & MEATLESS (with Mary Jane Wilan & Melissa t. Stock)

HOT SPOTS

TEXAS MONTHLY GUIDEBOOK TO NEW MEXICO

THE FIERY CUISINES (with Nancy Gerlach)

FIERY APPETIZERS (with Nancy Gerlach)

THE WHOLE CHILE PEPPER BOOK (with Nancy Gerlach)

CALLALOO, CALYPSO, AND CARNIVAL (with Mary Jane Wilan)

THE PEPPER GARDEN (with Paul Bosland)

Happy cooking – and happy cookbook collecting!
Sandy

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3 responses to “THE FOUNDING FOODIES by DAVE DeWITT

  1. Pingback: THE FOUNDING FOODIES by DAVE DeWITT | Sandy's Chatter | American Cooking Recipes

  2. Hi Sandra,

    Of all the things I have read about Ben Franklin (he’s one of my history heroes) I have never seen anything about him being a foodie. Thanks for sharing.

    Anna

  3. Anna, I am sorry I didn’t delve deeper into Franklin’s interests in food. DeWitt provides some interesting stories about Franklin, who preceded Jefferson as U.S. Minister to France where he Franklin) was greatly loved by French women. DeWitt says Franklin was a vocal promoter for the potato and famous for his potato promoting publicity stunts. Once he gave a dinner every dish of which consisted of potato disguised in some variety of form and even the liquids used at the table were extracted from it. And you probably know Franklin thought our American bird should have been the turkey, not the Bald Eagle. You may want to read “The Founding Foodies”, Anna. It’s educational but well written and easy to read. – Sandy

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