Tuesday, January 12, 2010
The Dinner Service Quirks of No. 3
Thomas Jefferson: Fastidious genius. Intellectual lion. Quirky entertainer.
Jefferson's mind could not abide a moment without stimulation. He was anxious for the conversation of dinner guests but had little patience to wait for them to take their seats at the table: When invited to Monticello, generally at three in the afternoon for aperitif (cocktails, loosely, in modern terms), the guests were advised of the impending meal by a first bell ringing promptly at three. The second bell, signaling a move to the dining room, beckoned promptly at four. While Jefferson waited in the dining room, he read while standing from a pile of books on the fireplace mantle in the dining room.
For a man who logged every minimal expenditure of his lifetime and kept copies of the 40,000 letters he wrote, he was not as committed to the rules of seating at his presidential table. Some guests were insulted at his inattentiveness to rank in seating the table in random assignments.
Once dinner arrived in the dining room at Monticello, Jefferson excused the slave staff and served the meal - and generally rather unusual and sometimes excellent wines which he imported from France - himself from dumbwaiters in the fireplaces. Slaves were unwelcome in Jefferson's dining room: He could not accept the possibility conversation might be interrupted or that one would eavesdrop and then repeat the business of the table.
Finally, while Jefferson did serve meat to his guests, and the White House dinners under his tenure were the most lavish then known, he was in fact largely a vegetarian. Concerned for his health and preferring food grown in the Monticello garden - populated with some 250 varieties of vegetables and herbs - he rarely consumed meat of any kind but consistently made it available to his guests.
Conversely, however, the dinner service he selected was not at all quirky. One of my preferences among the presidential dinner services collection both for his choice of his own iconic looping TJ monogram (we will not confuse the service with that of any other president) and its lively color, it remains available in reproduction today and is, naturally, handmade in the United States.