Book Review: Peter J. Hatch, “A Rich Spot of Earth”: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello
Peter J. Hatch, the Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello has written a fascinating new book entitled “A Rich Spot of Earth”: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello. A beautifully produced book, filled with historical images of seed catalogs, early 19th century gardens, and Jefferson’s diagrams, as well as almost sensual photographs of the fruits and vegetables the garden produces today, Hatch demonstrates the centrality of gardening and vegetables to the life of Jefferson’s and of 18th and early 19th century Virginians. Gardening united local communities and Jefferson served his home-grown, experimental produce to all comers to Monticello. Gardening fit Jefferson’s rational and scientific mind; experimenting with plants from around the world was part of the Enlightenment ideal. The first half of the book explains the garden, Jefferson’s interest in vegetables, the soils and challenges of gardening at Monticello, and its historical importance. The second half chronicles in great detail the different crops Jefferson planted. I learned an incredible amount about 18th century gardening and food here, including the idea of boiled lettuce, various species Jefferson may have played a hand in establishing in the United States, and the globalization of plant species in the 18th century. Hatch writes, “Jefferson’s Monticello garden was an Ellis Island of introduced economic plants” and that seems an appropriate characterization.
The book spawned a number of thoughts about both Jefferson’s influence on modern America and how he is a useful figure for the modern food movement. I was again struck by the versatility of Thomas Jefferson’s image in American history. No matter what the political view, period, or issue, Americans always find some way to connect themselves to Jefferson. During the Civil Rights Movement for instance, both civil rights leaders and segregationists used Jefferson as a touchstone. Defenders of a mythological Jefferson were determined to deny his relationship with Sally Hemings to the bitter end, and of course that end occurred with the development of DNA testing. Yet even this, the most famous example in American history of a white slaveowner demanding sexual favors of his slave (even if perhaps not always technically rape, how consensual can sex between a slave and master ever be?), has not dimmed our view of Jefferson. Instead, he seems more human, more American than ever. In a present with a half-Kenyan, half-white president, Jefferson siring interracial children places him at the center of the American racial paradox. Given Jefferson’s ambivalence toward slavery (not that he did anything about it), his sins of the Hemings relationship seem almost forgivable in a way, especially since the Hemings descendants have so embraced their legacy as Jefferson’s family.
So it’s hardly surprising that Jefferson would speak to the food passions of the early 21st century American. I’m not sure of a Jefferson who would love Twinkies and Hamburger Helper, but I wouldn’t be surprised if promoters of processed foods in the 1960s found some way to tie their products to the man. Today, many upwardly mobile Americans have embraced the food co-op, the organic head of lettuce, the backyard garden, and the heirloom tomato. Given Jefferson’s obsession with gardening and improving the American diet, even if, like most Americans today, he was really too busy to see it through with any consistency until he retired, it is hardly surprising that the modern foodie would see our 3rd president as a useful model. It seems appropriate that the demographic for this book is likely a middle to upper-class white person with a great love of food and who has personally benefited from capitalism. Jeffersonian agrarianism found itself challenged immediately upon the establishment of the republic; the fact that industrial capitalism so quickly won out means that we look to Jefferson as a symbol of something romantic, idealized, or lost. Jefferson may have won our hearts, but Hamilton won our minds and pocketbooks. With the profits of the Hamiltonian legacy, we can purchase expensive organic vegetables, enroll in pricey cooking classes, and take trips to Monticello to make us feel in touch with the land and nation.
As I read the book with all this in mind, I kept wondering what lesson the modern reader should take. Was this just historical food pornography? That has its own appeal, but as someone who cares about both food and social justice, I feel we need to glean something more. Maybe we are supposed to see Jefferson as an everyman. Hatch points out the yearly struggles Jefferson had with his gardens, battling weather, insects, and his own inattention, just like we do with our gardens. At the very least, like Jefferson, many of us are now rich enough that we can enjoy the glories of heirloom summer tomatoes, okra, and melons, even if we can’t or don’t grow them ourselves.
I’d like to think that gardening, reading, and eating good food have resonance for those who don’t benefit much from capitalism. But I don’t really see that much here. Like the modern food movement, the book feels rather white. Hatch does include a nice section on the labor of Monticello that includes a bit on African-American gardens. He usefully notes that gardens “allowed enslaved people to reserve a degree of autonomy from Jefferson’s purview.” Yet, and perhaps inevitably because of the paucity of sources and book’s two-pronged focus on Jefferson and the produce, the section feels a bit shoehorned into the larger project. That Alice Waters writes the book’s Foreword seems fitting; like in the high-end restaurants of California cuisine, people of color are behind the scenes doing the grunt work, but wealthy whites both take the credit and consume of the food.
And in the end, what work does Jefferson’s agrarianism do for us today? We might idealize farming and look to our hardscrabble ancestors for inspiration to live off the land, but the modern poor don’t have access to good food because of time, space, and money. If healthy, organic, heirloom food will become something more than the province of the well-off liberal, the local food movement has to move out of the high-end restaurant kitchen, PBS shows, and lovely coffee table book on Monticello’s gardens and into the kitchens of the parents working two jobs to make ends meet and the working-class urban neighborhoods. Hatch explicitly ties Jefferson’s legacy of food and gardening to Waters and Michael Pollan, but doesn’t go deeper than that. Any useful connection between Jefferson and the American working-class remains unanswered.
It might be unfair to ask a book on Jefferson’s garden to do this work for us. Isn’t it enough for such a book to inspire us about the amazing horticultural accomplishments of our most human Founding Father and to make us ooh and ahh over photos of rare early 19th century beans? Maybe. But given the demographics of its readership, its cost ($35), and its message, the book isn’t moving us toward the relative egalitarianism that Jeffersonian agrarianism was supposed to accomplish.
Of course, the book is absolutely beautiful and tells a fascinating story. It provides pure pleasure for those interested in tasty food lavishly presented. And it opens up a new and interesting way of thinking about Jefferson, the Founding Father who remains most relevant and malleable for Americans. It’s a cool book. But I wish it moved the conversation a bit more toward food justice.