Thomas Jefferson may have imported wines for his famous table, but America’s third president was a locavore with a valuable lesson for modern Virginians. Just a stone’s throw from Emerson Creek Pottery here in Bedford, VA., Jefferson’s Monticello brings half a million visitors to Charlottesville every year, and few guests fail to be impressed by the re-creation of Monticello’s food gardens. Understandably, slavery is the aspect of Monticello’s history that no modern person celebrates, but the gardens teach us something else, something extremely relevant to our times: the diversity of excellent, nutritious, delicious foods that can and should be grown in our corner of the world.
Thomas Jefferson cultivated 170 varieties of fruit trees and over 330 varieties of vegetables at Monticello. Despite his wealth and option to live a life of total ease, Jefferson was no lazy gentleman farmer, delegating care of the land solely to others. In point of fact, he was so deeply interested in food and farming that he kept an exceptionally detailed agricultural diary in which he joyfully recorded events like the sowing of lettuces and the harvesting of strawberries. He once risked the death penalty in smuggling pocketfuls of rice out of Italy. When visiting France, he astonished and delighted dinner guests by serving them a novelty: corn on the cob. Back home in Virginia, he indulged his inordinate passion for garden peas by growing some 30 varieties of them! Because of the industrialization of modern food production, many of the varieties of fruits and vegetables grown in Jefferson’s day are no longer cultivated in Virginia, or in America, but if we take a close look at the historic abundance of Monticello’s orchard and farm, we can glean helpful tips for today’s local food movement. While small family farms will have no need to compete with the production of old-time plantations, there is no reason why we can’t break ties with our unhappy dependence upon the poor quality foodstuffs found in chain supermarkets and start relishing the succulent satisfaction of Virginia-grown goods.
Thomas Jefferson reveled in Virginia hams and crabs from Chesapeake bay – America’s largest estuary – and the produce of his farm was of a quality so esteemed, his contemporaries wrote glowing accounts of Monticello dinner parties. A glance at a typical Monticello dinner menu gives an idea of what is possible when you choose to eat well from the sources closest to hand.
Sample Monticello Menu
Virginia Ham with Greens
Celery with Almonds
Pureed Cymlings (pattypan squash)
Damson Plum Preserves
Pickled Jerusalem Artichokes
Beaten Biscuit with homemade Cream Cheese
Cakes – Candied Violets – Fresh Peach Ice Cream
Almonds – Pecans
Few of us eat quite so much at a typical supper these days, but the idea here is to take a look at a menu like this in order to understand how utterly possible it is to dine sumptuously on completely local fare. There is no doubt that every dish served at Monticello would have been picked and offered at the peak of taste and freshness and when we contrast this with the long-distance, tasteless foods we’re restricted to when we eat a supermarket supper, we realize we’re losing out on the deal of ‘convenience’. Single families, neighborhoods and communities can change this unwanted, unhealthy situation by vowing to grow-their-own, and grow it organically, as was done in Jefferson’s time. If we have no garden of our own, we can ask our city councils for common land for community gardens or we can support any local farmers in our area.
Across the nation, right now, folks are meeting a changed economy and changing climate with changes in the way we think about food. We can learn to sow and harvest, can and preserve the very best of foods for our families, and we can do it all without chemical inputs, just as our forefathers did. We can feed our soil with compost made from our own scraps and create a cycle of self-sufficiency that endures for next generations. And, because eating locally means we will choose to grow the best-tasting crops instead of the ones with the longest shelf lives, over time we can work to naturally develop new strains of wonderful fruits and vegetables, widening the gene pool, just as our ancestors did. A food system in which only one or two varieties of each crop is cultivated is a vulnerable one. One blight or infestation can wipe out an entire food source when people monocrop – but diverse gardens with many strains of fruits and veggies are strong and destined to endure.
We have a lot to learn to re-claim the agricultural wisdom of former times, but 2010 will be another year in which ever more American families plant their first-ever food garden. Farming is in and processed, long-distance foods are on their way out. With our climate, water and soil, Virginia can take a leading role in this healthy change that will absolutely lead to better health for people and for the land. Our potters are proud that Emerson Creek Pottery’s very local ceramics have been featured at Monticello, and we’d like to remind our neighbors that the locavore diet is in our blood and waiting to be reclaimed as our birthright as inhabitants of such a good and life-giving land.
Our families deserve to know the tangy sweetness of a just-picked tomato and the gossamer delicacy of farm-to-table lettuces. We can discover why Thomas Jefferson was so captivated with green peas that he wanted to grow 30 different kinds of them, because we will taste a sugar-sweet pea, just off the vine in the cool of a Virginia morning this spring. We can get re-acquainted with our taste buds and turn up our educated noses at out-of-season imports. We’ll have found a source of joy that is at the heart of being alive – the pleasurable necessity of eating and eating well. Here comes the new year, and there’s no better time to make plans for a better way of eating and living, rooted in the history of our people and looking forward to a better future.