Alice Waters made her first pilgrimage to Monticello in 2011. Long an admirer of Thomas Jefferson, she marveled at the gardens full of heirloom varietals, like Tennis Ball lettuce and Marseilles fig, and paid homage to the man who praised small farmers as “the most valuable citizens,” Americans who are “tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”
Then she visited the cafe.
It was overwhelmingly stocked with ultraprocessed, packaged foods: There were racks of potato chips, salty snacks and candy bars. Coca-Cola-branded refrigerators were filled with soda, juice and a rainbow of sports drinks. The few prepackaged salads looked wan at best. There wasn’t even a stove.
“I was shocked,” said Waters, the Berkeley, California, restaurateur and cookbook author who has inspired devotion to seasonal and organic ingredients. “Here, in this special place, the inevitable fast food had infiltrated. I had to speak up about it. Which I did.”
Speaking up is her way. Waters famously persuaded Yale University, where her daughter was attending college, to make over its dining halls and has been the guiding spirit for the sustainable food program at the American Academy in Rome. She has pestered and shamed other prominent institutions to make changes to the food they serve, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
In that case, justice was not done. But the leadership at Monticello was open to change. Last weekend, at its annual Heritage Harvest Festival, the plantation outside Charlottesville, Virginia, welcomed her back as the event’s honorary co-chairwoman. She got her first look at the new and improved cafe, now called the Monticello Farm Table.
There are still some salty packaged snacks, but there is also a seasonal tomato and okra stew inspired by the African influences in Virginia cooking and made on a stove installed last month. There is an eggplant sandwich (eggplant was one of Jefferson’s favorite vegetables) and a Monticello salad, dressed with his tarragon vinaigrette.
The overhaul is part of a larger effort at Monticello to infuse Jeffersonian values on food and agriculture into visitors’ experience, said Ann Taylor, executive vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello. To that end, this year the organization hired a farmer who established a 1-acre production garden at Tufton Farm, a 650-acre property that is part of the original plantation.
Work on the cafe began in 2017 when, at Waters’ urging, the organization hired Robert LaValva, a food systems consultant in New York, to evaluate Monticello’s food offerings. His report revealed that 49% of the cafe items were packaged snacks—far more than at commercial sandwich shops including Subway, Panera and Pret A Manger—and 54% were “sugar-driven.” The food was also heavy on meat, despite Jefferson’s preference for eating meat sparingly.
Two years later, 80% of the food in the cafe is procured locally. At this time of year, 35% of its produce comes from Tufton Farm. The foundation also aims to educate patrons, by serving historical recipes and using whimsical place mats depicting the vegetable seeds that Jefferson brought to Monticello from around the world. At the Harvest festival, the cafe served a “chocolate cream” based on one of two surviving recipes from James Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved cook and the brother of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman with whom Jefferson had six children.
The use of better-quality and local ingredients has pushed up prices. The average price of a sandwich, adjusted for inflation, has risen to $9.33, from $6.24 in 2017. But at the harvest festival last weekend, the new food seemed to go down well. James Burnett, a Charlottesville resident, tasted a sample of stewed corn, tomatoes, green beans and sorghum and declared it “a Monticello garden in a bite.”
On a tour of the cafe, Waters was genuinely impressed with the progress but still saw room for improvement. She told a group that included Leslie Greene Bowman, the foundation’s president, that she wanted to see fewer baskets of chips, smaller portions to avoid food waste and a lot less plastic.
“Monticello has enough land to probably feed that whole cafe,” she said. “Let that be the goal.”
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