Virginia: Birthplace of America’s Culinary Revolution
From iconic Southern staples like ham, cornbread, grits and biscuits to American favorites like apple pie, French fries and ice cream, our modern cuisine owes a large debt to our founding fathers.
Story by Ginger Warder
It’s that time of year again, when we deck out in red, white and blue to celebrate our nation’s independence. Virginia is indisputably the birthplace of our country: it’s home to the first permanent colony of settlers at Jamestown and played a leading role in the American Revolution. Nicknamed the “mother of presidents,” Virginia was also the birthplace of eight of our leaders, including George Washington, our first president, and Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president—who not only played a role in the birth of our country, he helped give birth to modern American cuisine.
You’ve likely heard the saying “as American as apple pie;” the fruity dessert is one of our country’s most iconic dishes. The first apple harvest began with the settlers in Jamestown. Other traditional American foods include casual fare like corndogs and hamburgers with fries. In Virginia, favorite dishes like ham and oysters have been served at every feast since the colonists landed. In the South, favorite breakfasts often include grits, hominy, cornbread or biscuits. Americans nationwide are sweet on ice cream sundaes as well as strawberry shortcake topped with mountains of whipped cream.
About half of the above dishes have been served since the days of George Washington. We can thank Thomas Jefferson for the rest of them.
Colonial Cooking with George and Martha Washington
George Washington jokingly referred to his home at Mt. Vernon as a “tavern”, since it was constantly filled with visitors and houseguests. Those guests often mentioned the “excellent table” at Mt. Vernon, which included ham, roast beef, mutton, potatoes, hominy, oysters and George Washington’s favorite breakfast dish: hoecakes, a cross between cornbread and pancakes. Washington had his own grist mill, so cornbread, hoecakes and grits were breakfast staples at Mt. Vernon.
Biscuits also originated in Southern plantation kitchens, both the fluffy Southern buttermilk biscuit and the flat, crispy “beaten biscuit” often used in Virginia’s signature ham biscuits. Martha Washington’s cookbook features several recipes for Chesapeake Bay oysters including Tidewater Mushrooms—an appetizer stuffed with the briny bivalves—as well as recipes for apple hors d’oeuvres, apple pie, apple crisp and apple pancakes.
The foods that George and Martha served at Mt. Vernon in colonial Virginia—ham, oysters, cornbread, grits and biscuits—may not have been revolutionary culinary creations, but all of them are staples in the Old Dominion’s modern food lexicon.
Thomas Jefferson: America’s First Farm-to-table Foodie
Thomas Jefferson also loved to entertain at his mountaintop home, Monticello, and is widely considered to be the father of both gastronomy and viticulture, since he introduced both French cuisine and vinifera grapevines to America.
Jefferson was sent to Paris as a diplomatic envoy in 1784, a time when the French were in the midst of a culinary revolution. That same year, French chef Jean-Joseph Clause created pâté de foie gras and champagne became the national tipple of French aristocracy. Potatoes—from gratins to pommes frites (French fries)—appeared on French menus and condiments like mayonnaise, mustard and olive oil had become staples in the French kitchen.
Accompanying Jefferson on his extended stay in Paris was 19-year-old James Hemings, the enslaved older brother of Sally Hemings and a half-sibling to Martha Jefferson, with whom he shared a father. Apprenticed to a French caterer, Hemings was introduced to these new ingredients and to the techniques of French cooking, mastering both to become Jefferson’s chef de cuisine. When Jefferson returned to America in the fall of 1789, he brought Continental cuisine with him, as well as a love for European wines and a passionate interest in viticulture. Hemings produced elaborate dinners at Monticello and the word of his creative dishes spread throughout the state and beyond.
You can thank Jefferson and Hemings for French fries, whipped cream and ice cream to name a few of our iconic American foods, and you can thank Hemings—our first African American chef—for his fusion cooking style that combined African American, Southern and Continental cuisines to create the modern American fare we enjoy today, most especially in the South.
Our third president thought of himself, first and foremost, as a farmer. He once said, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Jefferson’s 1,000-foot-long kitchen garden at Monticello was both a horticultural experiment and a source of food for his table, featuring more than 250 varieties of different species of vegetables. He imported figs from France, peppers from Mexico, squashes and broccoli from Italy and grew “new” vegetables including tomatoes, French artichokes, cauliflower and eggplant. A lover of salads, he planted lettuces and radishes on a regular basis and even grew sesame to use in vinaigrette. He also built a garden pavilion overlooking the rows of vegetables, a place where he could sit and make notes in his garden journal.
Jefferson also had a large orchard of fruit trees. America’s colonists brought seeds and plants from their native countries, but the New World’s climate demanded adaption and our famous apple pie is a great example of that fusion. Although our early fruit trees were grown from European stock, many tastier American apple varieties created by enterprising colonists soon overtook the original European trees, prompting Thomas Jefferson to write in a letter to Reverend James Madison from his diplomatic post in Paris, “They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown pippin.”
Jefferson also planted two vineyards and tried to grow grapes from the rootstock he brought back from France or from vines sent to him by his European friends, but he failed miserably time after time. He once said, “We could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.” But, it was not until the 20th century with the advent of modern pesticides that Gabrielle Rausse—Monticello’s “assistant director of gardens and grounds,” also known as the father of Virginia wine—successfully produced wine from Jefferson’s original vineyards, proving Jefferson’s musings were 200 years ahead of their time.
Plan A Trip
Include these historic places to eat, sip and stay in your itinerary:
Start your day with authentic hoecakes at the Mt. Vernon Inn. Be sure to slather them with butter and honey like the father of our country did in his day! Pick up a souvenir for a fellow foodie: grits and cornmeal that are still ground today in Washington’s gristmill.
Head to central Virginia to sip your way along the Monticello Wine Trail. Be sure to visit Barboursville Vineyards, known for its award-winning reds, particularly the Cabernet Franc and Octagon, as well as for the Viognier white wine. Visit the ruins of the historic mansion that Thomas Jefferson designed for his friend, Virginia’s Governor James Barbour, or spend the night in the estate’s elegant 1804 Inn, a Georgian villa that predates the Governor’s mansion and overlooks the ruins.
Visit the capital city of Richmond and pamper yourself with a night at the city’s historic grand dame, The Jefferson Hotel. The Palm Court Lobby is ringed with Tiffany windows and dominated by a life-sized Edward Valentine statue of Jefferson. Just off the lobby, Lemaire—named for Jefferson’s mâitre d’hôtel in the White House—serves upscale Virginia classics like chicken-fried Chesapeake Bay oysters, crab cakes, heirloom red corn grits and collard greens.
For more information, explore Visit Virginia