J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Muffins at Monticello

Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838-1839, edited by Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla, is a book from the Massachusetts Historical Society. (Other authors call the diarist Ellen Randolph Coolidge, using her maiden name.)

Soon after arriving in London, Coolidge wrote a long journal entry for Monday, 9 July 1838, which reports:
We breakfast about ten and dine at seven, taking coffee immediately after and tea when we call for it—at any hour. Our breakfast consists of black tea, comme ça, butter la la—having no ice upon it; but delicious muffins, light, white, spongy just such as we had, in former days, at Monticello, when the cook happened to be sober. Such as I once heard a little boy desire his mother to “butter on the back, stick holes in with a fork, and squeeze down in the plate till the juice run out.” Add to these, new-laid eggs with the date of their production written on them with a pencil, and very fine, large, ripe strawberries.
The little boy was Coolidge’s little brother Benjamin Franklin Randolph, born in 1808. Others retold the anecdote. At some point he might have been sick of hearing it.

Ellen Coolidge’s grandfather also enjoyed Monticello’s muffins in that period. As President, Thomas Jefferson wrote home to his daughter: “Pray enable yourself to direct us here how to make muffins in Peter’s method. My cook here cannot succeed at all in them, and they are a great luxury to me.”

Birle and Francavilla write:
The cook [whom Coolidge remembered] may have been Peter Hemings (1770–after 1834), whose recipe for muffins Jefferson preferred, or possibly Edith Fossett (1787-1854), who trained and cooked at the President’s House [in Philadelphia] and became head cook at Monticello in 1809, after Peter Hemings departed.
Hemings didn’t “depart” Monticello—like Fossett, he was enslaved, and departing would have been difficult. Rather, Hemings became Monticello’s brewer instead of its cook. Some connection with beer might explain Ellen Coolidge’s reference to the cook as less than constantly sober. Later Hemings supported himself and his family as a tailor.

Monticello has whole pages on the muffins, including the original recipe and a modern version.

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