Friday, May 8, 2015

Monticello: Thomas Jefferson's Mountaintop Retreat

Monticello is the autobiographical masterpiece of Thomas Jefferson — designed and redesigned and built and rebuilt for more than forty years — and its gardens were a botanic showpiece, a source of food, and an experimental laboratory of ornamental and useful plants from around the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, the property is considered a national treasure not only for its beauty and historical significance but also for what it reveals about the third U.S. president, a complex and controversial figure whose political philosophy fundamentally shaped the nation. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once wrote, “More than any historic home in America, Monticello speaks to me as an expression of the personality of its builder.” 

A cherry tree in bloom

Monticello was home not only to the Jefferson family, but to workers, black and white, enslaved and free. As the principal plantation street, Mulberry Row was the dynamic, industrial hub of Jefferson’s 5,000-acre agricultural enterprise, and comprised more than 20 dwellings built during Jefferson’s lifetime, including the joiner’s shop, workmen’s house, nailery, and Negro quarter between 1770 and the sale of Monticello in 1831. It was the centre of work and domestic life for dozens of people: free whites, free blacks, indentured servants, and enslaved people who worked as worked as tinsmiths, nailers, sawyers, carpenters, joiners, charcoal-burners, spinners, weavers, hostlers, and domestic servants. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a nonprofit organization, purchased the property in 1923 and continues to operate it as a museum and educational institution.

The kitchen, laundry and ice house wing which also stored Jefferson's extensive wine collection

The kitchen with working fireplace

The bread oven is the small inset enclosure on the right

The stables which housed many of Jefferson's personal horses

Monticello as seen from the pond which he used to stock with fish to be consumed at dinners

A blossoming peony in the Monticello gardens

One of the reconstructed Slave quarters along 'Mulberry Row'

Sign on site along Mulberry Row explaining the reconstructions happening

 The ration of food given to each adult slave per week: cornmeal, fish, and pork lard 

Monticello's 1,000-foot terraced vegetable garden

Jefferson's Garden Pavilion overlooks acres of land that was part of his plantation

Thomas Jefferson's grave at Monticello

Monticello White Bean Soup
Serves 8
Recipe by Virginia Randolph Trist and Septimia Anne Randolph Meikleham, Jefferson's granddaughters

4 cups dried navy, great Northern, or cannellini beans
16 cups water or chicken broth
Salt and pepper
2 large carrots, trimmed, peeled, and diced
2 small turnips, trimmed, peeled, and diced
1 medium parsnip, trimmed, peeled, and diced
3 large ribs of celery with leafy green tops, chopped
3 tbsp unsalted butter
4 slices rustic artisan bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick

Rinse and sort the beans, removing any stones or impurities. Drain the beans and put them in a large bowl, then cover by a few inches of cold water. Soak the beans overnight. Drain the beans, then put them in a large pot or 6-quart Dutch oven. Cover with 4 quarts of water and bring slowly to a simmer over medium heat, skimming any scum that rises to the surface. Simmer gently until the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Replenish the liquid with additional water as needed.

Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Add the diced carrots and turnips and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Add the parsnip and continue to simmer until all of the vegetables and beans are quite soft, 15-30 minutes longer. Taste the soup and adjust seasoning, adding more salt or pepper to taste, if desired.

Pass the soup through a food mill to puree, or use an immersion blend to blend the soup till it reaches the desired texture. In Jefferson’s time it would have been passed through a sieve to make a very smooth and light puree; a food mill will create a similar texture. Alternatively, use an immersion blender to make the soup thicker and more hearty.

Add the chopped celery ribs to the puree and simmer gently for 15 minutes more till tender. If the soup is too thick, thin it with more simmering water.

Butter the bread slices and toast them in a skillet on medium heat, turning frequently, until golden. Cut the toasted slices into bite-sized pieces and divide them among 8 warm bowls. Ladle the soup over the toasted bread cubes and serve hot, garnished with a few small bread cubes on top.