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Thomans Jefferson’s legacy — ‘America’s First Foodie’

October 15, 2012
By JOYCE COMINGORE - Garden Club of Cape Coral , Cape Coral Daily Breeze


Special to The Breeze

In the latest Florida Gardening magazine, October/November edition, Associate Professor of Biology at USF Frederick Essig wrote about the Solanaceae family of plants. He sets up this premise that, when Marco Polo, a fine Italian lad, might have returned from Asia and his 23 years of dealings with Kublai Kahn, he would be homesick for a resplendent feast of Italian cooking. He ate a sumptuous meal of eggplant and potatoes smothered in a rich tomato sauce spiced with chili peppers, a salad with strips of avocado, tomatoes, red and green peppers, corn kernels, pineapple and sunflower seeds. For dessert he had Neapolitan ice cream, then, he lit up his pipe filled with his favorite tobacco and relaxed. Mind you, this would have been 1295. Frederick asks, "What's wrong with this picture?"

Well, ice cream was not available until the 13th century, and none of these foods or tobacco existed in Europe at that time. These were new world foods introduced two centuries later, after Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. It has been suggested that Columbus carried the book written by Marco Polo with him, because Columbus wanted to find Asia and its riches. He didn't realize he had found a new world, and even up to death, he believed he had landed in Asia.

Conversely, I find Thomas Jefferson responsible for bringing Europe's bounty to the Americas. Jefferson may have been our third president, a gifted architect, wrote the Declaration of Independence and a remarkable inventor, but to me, his main importance was as a truly experimental farmer. His famous home, Monticello, in Virginia, served as an experimental farm. He kept detailed notes on everything planted, their successes and failures. He is quoted, as saying, "the greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture."

His vegetable garden was on an elevated terrace facing south. It absorbed the heat in the summer and the cold air slid past it, down the mountain into the valley. The vegetable garden was a plateau literally carved out of the side of the mountain by slave labor. It was 1,000 feet long and 80 feet wide, containing about two acres. It was supported by a massive stone wall that stood over 12 feet high at its highest section. Because of its protected location, Jefferson could grow successfully warm climate plants from around the world. He has been called "America's First Foodie."

As president, he recorded the first and last vegetables each year that appeared in the local farmer's markets in Washington, D.C.Lewis and Clark brought him back plants, his trips abroad and foreign embassies would compete in supplying him with their most unusual vegetables. He also sought the largest and latest producing vegetables to get the best seeds. Jefferson would then share the seeds, giving them to surrounding farmers with planting directions, knowing that if his failed, he could always find replacements - insurance.

He also used scientific methods of selectivity to eliminate inferior types. Planting 20 varieties of beans and 15 varieties of peas, he wanted to narrow down the best of the species, eliminating inferior types to avoid the dangers of mixing or degeneracy.

He emphasized sustainable gardening, stressing the need for the best soil by adding organic matter. When his daughter complained about the bugs destroying her plants, he blamed it on poor soil. He believed that "when plants grow in rich soil, it bids defiance to pests and diseases." His kitchen defined the new American, Virginia cuisine.

An article in the September Southern Living, stated, "what few people knew, is that Jefferson enjoyed killing plants." He knew that by failing, you discover the path to success. In 1776, he started recording in a gardening book or calendar precisely every detail concerning his gardening. This garden did not provide all the food needs of his family; they had to buy some vegetables from their slaves who had gardens on their plots. His gardens primary purpose was truly an experimental garden.

After his death, parts of the estate were sold to pay debts. In 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Fund (now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation) was established. In 1938, they invited the Garden Club of Virginia to participate in the restoration of the gardens, and they do so until this day. In order to do so with historical accuracy, they found his notes and followed them. A book has been published, "Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book," annotated by the late Edwin M. Betts, encompassing these notes. It details Jefferson's flower, vegetable and orchards plots.

In December 1977, they hired a director of horticulture, Peter Hatch, who has just retired after 34 years. He found a garden grown for cut flower arranging, (under the auspices of the Garden Club - imagine that!) He was mainly interested in the vegetable garden. Reading and re-reading the notes, he set about trying to find the 330 seeds written about. Many seed saving organizations and individuals came to his rescue. Not all have been located, and as close as possible, they try to re-create the gardens as they existed between 1807 and 1814.

Today the garden is only an interpretation, and modern tools are used to ease the maintenance. Now, the garden is planted partly for the seed collection and partly to interpret more fully Jefferson's ideas. Seeds may be obtained by going online to Purchase of these seeds support Monticello and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation for preservation and education. Hatch has written a book explaining the significance of this revolutionary garden, "A Rich Spot of Earth."

Jefferson revolutionized farming and the American garden, and ultimately changed the way we eat.

I want to put this on my bucket list, also, to thank a tree for our fresh air.

Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, board member of the Federated Ft. Myers/Lee County Garden Council and District IX Tree Chairman, a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral and an hibiscus enthusiast.



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