Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée

By JeanMarie Brownson

The Union League Club of Chicago hosted the very fortunate Chicago Dames That Read members on September 9. Les Dames member Judith Dunbar Hines led the evening with a copy of “Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee How A Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America” by Thomas J. Craughwell in hand.

We worked up our appetites with a brief tour of the 127-year-old Club’s magnificent art collection, one of the largest privately held collections in the United States. A Monet greeted us at our first stop at the top of the marble staircase. Pommiers en fleurs or Apple Trees in Blossom, painted by Claude Monet in 1872, is said to have been purchased by a club member for $1500 and sold to the club for a mere $500.

Many of the works travel as much as a Club member. The Monet was recently at a retrospective in Rome and Anna Lou Matthew’s painting from the 1930’s, “The Lord’s Prayer,” was shown recently at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.

The focus of the Club’s vast collection is on artists of the Midwest. The Club has works by one of Chicago’s leading painters, William Samuel Schwartz, who also painted murals for the World’s Fair in 1933.

Leading American impressionist Robert Reed features the coast of Brittany in his piece titled “The Blessing of the Boats.” We see more of France in Mary Fairchild MacMonnies Low “Blossoming Time in Normandy.” Low, an American impressionist who created a mural called Primitive Women for the Chicago Columbian Exposition, agitated for women’s right to study nude models; a fact that impressed the current Chicago Dames.
Chef Michael Garbin welcomed us to one of the modern-art-filled dining rooms of the magnificent 1925 building with a glass of Mâcon-Lugny “Les Genièvres” 2009.

Much of the evening’s book discussion centered on the 86 crates of kitchen equipment and foodstuffs Thomas Jefferson acquired during his 1784 to 1789 tenure in Paris. Olive oil, Maille mustard, anchovies, macaroni and cases of wines never before seen in this country were shipped to the port in Boston.
In France, Jefferson studied the cultivation of French crops, collected wines and seeds and discovered new cooking gadgets. Meanwhile, his slave, James Hemings, apprenticed under master French chefs. Hemings cooked for Jefferson until he was freed by him in 1796.

Thomas J. Craughwell’s entertaining narrative history motivated Chef Garbin to serve a Jefferson-inspired dinner of multiple vegetable dishes with a modicum of meat. In this case, meltingly tender veal shank. Chef Garbin’s mushroom risotto recalled this passage from the book: “Jefferson was impressed that rice from Italy came to market with its kernels clean and whole, unlike the rice grown in American, which often had its kernels broken in the cleaning process. He smuggled rice from Italy. Later in a memorandum he wrote to himself entitled “Services to My Country,” he stated “the greatest service which can be rendered to any county is, to add an useful plant to its culture.”

Jefferson’s love of vegetables included tomatoes (thank goodness for those of us in the salsa business). He was one of the first Virginians to plant tomatoes at a time when most Americans thought they were poisonous.

Tiny, bright-red tomatoes garnished Chef Garbin’s crisp lettuce salad with tarragon dressing (Jefferson’s favorite). Another platter of heirloom tomatoes with fresh sweet corn arrived from the Club’s kitchen along with a shredded slaw topped with pears to commemorate another Jefferson favorite: Cabbage.

Dinner concluded with crème brulee and Jefferson’s cherished sweets, French macaroons and pate de fruit. We leave feeling a sweet debt to our gracious hosts, The Union League Club, Chef Garbin, Judith Dunbar Hines and Thomas Jefferson.

More information:
Only a handful of recipes written by Thomas Jefferson or James Hemings exist. Thomas J. Craughwell includes a sampling in his book “Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee How A Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America.”

For tours of the art at the Union League Club:
On the first Monday of every month at 10:00 a.m., the general public may enjoy a tour of highlights from the art collection. Tours are usually 45-60 minutes and are geared toward an adult audience. Guided tours are free but reservations are required and must be made well in advance of each monthly tour. To reserve a place on the monthly public tour, please contact Club Curator Elizabeth K.Whiting at 312.435.5942 or

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