Hye Thyme Cafe: Review: Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée

Welcome to the Hy
e Thyme Cafe. Although not all of my recipes are Armenian, the name is a little nod to my Armenian grandmother who is no longer with us. The Hye refers to all things related to her homeland, and she represents all things food-related to me, so the two just seemed to go together. I can't even claim that my Armenian recipes are truly Armenian, since Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Lebanon, Syria, and even Egypt share so many foods that they've all sort of morphed into one over thousands of years.

Whether you like to cook, bake, have never done either, or just like to play with your food...come on in and join me! :)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Review: Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée

Thanks to the folks over at Quick Books, I had the opportunity to review a copy of Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée – How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America – by Thomas J. Craughwell.

Many of us learned from a Kraft Macaroni and Cheese commercial, if not before, that Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing Macaroni and Cheese to America.  I had no idea until reading this book just how many other things Jefferson introduced to the states.

Whether you are a foodie, a history buff, are from Virginia, Philadelphia, or Boston (Ben Franklin and John Adams appear often), you must get this book!  I enjoyed this read so much that I was tempted to write this post before getting even a third of the way through!  I wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to pick up a copy for themselves and maybe a few folks on their Christmas list.  This would be perfect for a young aspiring foodie – get a few recipes and some food knowledge with a side of history.

And this is coming from someone who abhors reading about history.  I can read a biography and will happily park myself in front of the TV for a movie or documentary, but I find reading about history very tedious and dry.  Such was not the case here.  I picked up a lot of interesting new information in addition to being reminded of things I had failed to retain from my school years.

The book largely follows Jefferson and Hemings during Jefferson's appointment by Congress as a minister plenipotentiary (commisioner of commerce) stationed in France.

Without delving too deeply into the politics of the time, Craughwell makes clear what was going on at home and abroad during Jefferson's travels, while bringing us into Jefferson's dining room and treating us to a glimpse of the fare offered to his many guests, as prepared by Hemings.  Hemings had traveled with Jefferson as part of an agreement by which he would train under a French Chef to learn all that he could and would then similarly train another slave back home as a condition of his release.

It is strange indeed to note that upon the death of his father-in-law, John Wayles, Jefferson inherited, among other things, Wayles' slaves.  Given that Wayles and Elizabeth Hemings (James's mother) produced six children together, Jefferson and his wife became owners of her own half-siblings, an arrangement that was apparently not uncommon at the time.  As for Jefferson's own feelings on the topic, while he did not emancipate his slaves, he noted late in life that "I am not apt to despair; yet I see not how we are to disengage ourselves from that deplorable entanglement, we have the wolf by the ears and feel the danger of either holding or letting him loose."

It was fascinating to read about all of the culinary tools Jefferson and Hemings were introduced to in France and later brought back to America, as well as their endeavors to transplant myriad varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, etc., with wine grapes being at the top of Jefferson's list.  Some attempts failed, where many were a great success…such as the introduction of Champagne and ice cream to the American public.  Jefferson once went so far as to illegally smuggle a particular type of rice out of Italy, the penalty for which was death, in an attempt to cultivate it at home

Among the historical facts presented in the book is the origin of the restaurant, which is interesting in itself.  Then there is the matter of potatoes and tomatoes.  I'll just leave it at that and let you wonder.  And no, Jefferson did not write "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off!"

I did get one laugh out of the book.  While making a trip to Italy, between Orange and Nimes on their way out of France, Jefferson noted: "Here begins the country of olives … Thyme growing wild here on the hills.  Asses very small."  I have to assume that was in reference to the animal, but my first thought was that I really need to incorporate more thyme into my diet!

An Ironic Aside: Given my Armenian background, I have an interest in reading stories by/about survivors of the Armenian Genocide, etc. and had just ordered Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian (an Oprah book of the week). I received that in the mail the day after I started reading Crème Brûlée.  A few days later, I was surprised to see noted in Crème Brûlée that the first ever coffee shop was opened in Paris by Armenian brothers, Pascal and Gregoire Alep.  While waiting to receive this book, I was offered a selection of other books to choose from for review and selected Tiny Food Party by Teri Lyn Fisher & Jenny Park.  Also on the list, was Fill in the Blank – An Inspirational Sketch Book.  Although not food related, I loved the idea of the book and added it to my wish list, only to be surprised to learn that it was created by Élodie Chailous & Vahram Muratyan, yet another Armenian.  While I was working on the computer the other night [contemplating writing this post without having finished the book], I was specifically thinking how odd it was that those three things would come up at the same time.  I had Abby Lee's Ultimate Dance Competition on the TV in the background and nearly fell over when I heard, at that moment, one of the mothers relate the feeling behind her daughter's dance of the night to her own family's struggle during the Armenian Genocide.  I think my Grandmother might be trying to let me know she's checking in with me over the holidays or something.  

I have not had a chance to take a peek at Tiny Food Party yet, but now that Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée is on your must get list, perhaps I can interest you in something else …

Fill in The Blank -- This book offers page after page of inspiration, starting with an array of empty glass cake stands needing to be filled.  Inside these pages you will find everything from blank soda (beer?) cans to empty ring boxes and magician hats crying out for bunnies, doves, and never ending scarves.  I have a confession to make.  When I saw this book on the list, I had requested it thinking I would have fun with it myself.  However, given that my sister is an artist, I might just sneak it in with her Christmas gifts.  You never know where an artist will find inspiration, but playing on these pages is sure to spark some interesting ideas.  If there is a doodler or aspiring artist in your midst, be sure to pick up a copy today.

Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée                                Fill in The Blank
~ Thomas J. Craughwell                                              ~ Élodie Chailous & Vahram Muatyan
E-Book ISBN: 978-1-59474-579-9                                   ISBN: 9781594745805
ISBN: 9781594745782                                                   Amazon  /  Barnes & Noble

** Although I was provided copies of the books in question by Quirk Books, this is not a paid post, and my opinions are strictly my own. **


  1. Thanks for a good read about your good reads!

    1. Have you read Sandcastle Girls yet? I hope to start it tomorrow, but I've heard it was very good.

  2. What a fun (and educational!) read!

  3. That Jefferson book sounds wonderful. I'm heading over to check it out now.

    BTW, so glad you are posting non-recipe posts that don't make me sad about not being able to cook them during the remodel. :)

    1. Hmmm, if it wasn't Christmas with all the cooking/baking coming up, I'd see what I could come up with that would go along with your remodel job, but alas, I definitely need the oven this week!! Really do hope you'll pick up this book. I already passed mine along to my sister to read ... I better get it back!! ;)


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