Saturday, May 18, 2019

Thomas Jefferson & the great Pea competition

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawentura Kosciuszko (1746 - 1817)

Thomas Jefferson was known to have a passion for peas.  For several years, he would organize a competition among his Virginia neighbors to see who could produce the 1st peas of the year. The winner would invite all the other competitors to his home for dinner, to eat peas, of course.
1782 William Redmore Bigg (1755-1828)  A Girl Shelling Peas

Thomas Jefferson was particularly fond of the English or Garden pea.  He mentions planting it frequently at Monticello devoting a relatively large amount of kitchen garden space (3 entire "squares") to his precious peas.  According to family accounts, every spring Jefferson competed with local gentleman gardeners to bring the first pea to the table.  The winner then hosting a community dinner that included a feast on the winning dish of peas. Among the 19 pea varieties Jefferson documented sowing were Early Frame, which was planted annually from 1809 until 1824; Hotspur, named for its quick, frantic growth; Marrowfat, a starchier, later variety; and Blue Prussian, which Jefferson obtained from Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon.  Jefferson's pea consumption seemed to slump during his presidency, however.  Jefferson's butler, Lemaire recorded purchasing peas for the President's House only 6 times in 1806 for the elaborate state dinners Jefferson hosted.

Jefferson's eldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph recalled this competition in a letter to Mr. Randall, "A wealthy neighbor [Mr. George Divers], without children, and fond of horticulture, generally triumphed. Mr. Jefferson, on one occasion had them first, and when his family reminded him that it was his right to invite the company, he replied, "No, say nothing about it, it will be more agreeable to our friend to think that he never fails."

This is apparently the case in an April, 1815 letter from Mr. Divers to Jefferson: "We returned home yesterday from a visit of several days and I did not examine into the state of our peas till late in the evening, when I found them quite ready…We should be glad you will come up and partake of our first dish today & that Mr. Maddison would come with you."
1795 Fresh Gathered Peas Young Hastings after Giovanni Vendramini (1769-1839)