Today’s post is guest authored by Julie Miller, historian of early America in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
The President and the Parsnip: Thomas Jefferson’s Vegetable Market Chart, from our sibling blog Inside Adams, caught our eye as an interesting approach to understanding one aspect of Jefferson’s daily life, based on a document in his papers here at the Library of Congress. Julie Miller, the author of that post, generously offered these teaching ideas to follow up.
Follow Thomas Jefferson’s example and make your own vegetable market chart to track the seasonal availability of produce where you live. Start by recording the fruits and vegetables you see in grocery stores, farmers’ markets, or your own garden, and the dates of their first and last appearances. Compile the information in a table. Here are some questions and ideas you might consider as you study your table:
Compare Jefferson’s findings to yours.
- What do they tell you about differences in region and climate?
- What about change over time?
- How does your access to these fruits and vegetables compare to Jefferson’s?
- What accounts for the differences?
To think about: Jefferson recorded that, between 1801 and 1808, strawberries were available in Washington, D.C. from May to July, while the parsnip, a root vegetable, was available almost year-round, from June through the following April. Are strawberries and parsnips still available between these dates in Washington, D.C. today? When are they available where you live? Jefferson’s strawberries came from the vicinity of Washington; where do yours come from?
What fruits and vegetables do you see on Jefferson’s chart that are unfamiliar to you? What fruits and vegetables are on your chart that are not on Jefferson’s?
To think about: On Jefferson’s chart, I would pick out “corn sallad,” “sorrel,” and “salsafia” (Jefferson’s spelling was sometimes irregular). Just as Americans today buy and eat food brought to them by immigrants (tomatillos, for example), in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Americans learned about French food from refugees from France’s revolution. Jefferson’s butler Etienne Lemaire came to the United States from France in 1792 and lived in Philadelphia, where there was a community of French refugees. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the recipes he learned from Lemaire. Here is Lemaire’s recipe for vinegar syrup, made with sugar and raspberries, included in a May 25, 1809, letter to Jefferson.
Brainstorm a list of factors that have contributed to the transformation in American eating habits since the first decade of the nineteenth century, when Jefferson made his vegetable market chart. Investigate a few to learn how they make what you eat different from what Jefferson ate.
To think about: People who live in cities today typically eat food that comes from farther away than it did in Jefferson’s time. New Yorkers eat fruit from California, for example, and milk arrives at city supermarkets in refrigerated trucks instead of coming from neighborhood cows at the back door.