Yes, Jefferson was a great statesman. But did you know that he is responsible for bringing in seeds and plants from Europe and cultivating and continuing varieties found in the Americas that are staples of our diet today?
The South Carolina Midlands Master Gardeners Association brings Peter Hatch, renowned director of the garden and grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to Columbia next week.
To me, this should be one of those events that appeals to gardeners, historians and cooks alike. What better historical figure than Thomas Jefferson, now enjoying a resurgence in popularity with recent books out about his life and legacy, could there be to inform folks as to when and how many of the vegetables and fruits adorning our modern tables came to be in America?
Hatch, in his role as the director at Monticello, painstakingly researched and restored Jefferson’s 2,400-acre landscape. His new book, “A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello,” documents this accomplishment through gorgeous photography and historical records and gives the reader insight into Jefferson’s passion for gardening and food.
Yes, Jefferson was a great statesman.
But did you know that Jefferson is responsible for bringing in seeds and plants from Europe and cultivating and continuing varieties found in the Americas that are staples of our diet today?
To quote Hatch’s book: “Countless new, and what were to become favorite, vegetable varieties were documented at Monticello for the first time, including novelties like sea kale, tomatoes, okra and eggplant; Leadman’s Dwarf and Blue Prussian peas; Tennis-ball, Brown Dutch, Marseilles and Ice lettuce; Early York cabbage; and Jerusalem artichokes.”
Tomatoes and okra? That’s a classic combination known to Southern cooks.
Seeds from good or favored producers were saved in seed banks for future growing and plants and seeds were freely swapped between gardens. Hatch shows pages of Jefferson’s meticulous record-keeping in this matter as well as records of Jefferson’s purchases and swaps with his contacts throughout Europe. (And as a result, seeds harvested from Jefferson and historic varieties of vegetables grown in the present-day gardens at Monticello are packaged and sold through the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants.)
And just as my sister and I today compete to grow the first ripened tomato of the season, Hatch writes of one recorded highlight of the early spring growing season for Jefferson and his neighbors. It seems that there was an annual contest among the surrounding gardens and plantations to see who could produce the earliest peas. Bragging rights meant that the winner would host a grand dinner with the first early pea harvest as its centerpiece.
The committee of the Midlands Master Gardeners Association responsible for bringing in Hatch are following in this example by highlighting some of the current seasonable vegetables: namely lettuce and asparagus.
Special thanks to Carla Brophy, Barbara Whittaker and Susan Coleman Fedor for helping to organize Hatch’s visit and research recipes of the era. They were kind enough to prepare the dishes photographed for this article and to supply me with some growing tips for adding lettuce and asparagus to your garden. (They will also prepare some samples of Jeffersonian-era dishes for Hatch’s presentation.)
As an aside, I would recommend as a companion book to Peter Hatch’s “A Rich Spot of Earth,” Thomas J. Craughwell’s “Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How A Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America.”
Highlights of growing lettuce and asparagus in the Midlands.
Details can be found online at Clemson Extension Service (clemson.edu/extension/hgic)
Jefferson, in his General Gardening Calendar, advised that “a thimbleful of Lettuce should be sowed every Monday morning, from Feb. 1st to Sept. 1.”
Lettuce is one of the easiest cool-season crops to grow.
Sowing season for late winter, early spring is the month of February. For fall, seed should be sown Aug. 15-25
Lettuce prefers temperatures of 55-65 degrees for optimum growth and loamy soil with high organic matter content.
Recommended cultivars: Green leaf: green ice, Simpson elite; Red leaf: red sails, Lolla Rosa; Boston: buttercrunch; Head lettuce: Ithaca, summertime, Nevada; Romaine: Parris Island cos
A hardy perennial that takes two to three years to establish but will produce high yields for seven to eight years before gradually declining.
Planting season is late January to early March. Start with transplants or 1-year-old nursery-grown disease-free crowns.
Asparagus prefers a site with good drainage and full sun. Beds should be enriched with manure, compost, bone or blood meal, leaf mold or a combination of several of these.
Recommended cultivars: Jersey Knight, Jersey Gem, Jersey Giant, purple passion
Makes about one cup
1 small clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup sesame oil
1/3 cup tarragon or white wine vinegar
Mix all ingredients in a sealed jar and dress lettuces or vegetables.
1 1/2 lbs asparagus
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
Fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 small red onion, finely diced
1 tablespoon capers
1 hard cooked egg, finely chopped
Clean and steam asparagus until crisp (about 3 minutes in a microwave. Plunge into ice water to stop cooking process. Drain and set aside.
Mix vinegar, oil, thyme, parsley, onion, capers, and egg.
Arrange asparagus in serving tray and pour marinade over. Add another chopped egg and chopped parsley for garnish and chill until serving, about 1 hour.
1 quart young okra
2 cups water
1 cup lima beans
5 tomatoes, cut in pieces
1 lb chicken, cut in pieces
1/2 stick butter rolled in flour
Bring cut okra and water to boil for 30 minutes.
Add lima beans and chicken and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add tomatoes and continue simmering for 1 hour.
Add floured butter and continue to simmer until thickened.