Joan Nathan / June 21st, 2012
Alice Waters was in her element. Seated on the ground in Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden, with a portable washtub and plastic salad spinner at the ready, she was plucking Tennis-ball and Brown Dutch, two types of lettuce that Jefferson loved. “Jefferson was our first edible educator,” she said. “He took perfect notes. And he was both a farmer and a gastronome.”
Waters was at Monticello to orchestrate a dinner designed for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s annual April meeting, held each year at about the time of his birthday. The dinner was prepared by Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA) chef Nathan Alderson and alumni Christopher Lee, the salumeria consultant responsible for Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria’s three stars in the New York Times; Mona Talbott, former executive chef at the American Academy in Rome; and Nico Monday and Amelia O’Reilly, chefs at the Market Restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts. “The biggest challenge was setting up a field kitchen,” said Lee. “Procuring all the ingredients locally from small organic farms was a very big effort, from the sparkling apple cider produced by the apple growers, to the copper kettle where we cooked the soup with she crabs harvested in the Chesapeake that morning.” The main course was Virginia lamb prepared two ways—grilled and roasted with spring vegetables.
Earlier in the day, Waters and others plucked arugula, parsley, tiny viola flowers, scallions, radishes, tarragon, and mint, as well as the bright yellow flowers of sea kale and black and white buds of fava beans. Later, they would be served at the feast in a large tent set up on the lawn of Monticello, right in front of Jefferson’s domed home.
For her vinaigrette, Waters chose garlic from the garden, smashed in a mortar and pestle. Then she added coarse salt and stirred in red wine as well as a little Sherry vinegar. Then she whisked in some very good Italian olive oil, tasting until the proportions worked. In front of the 300-some guests, she tossed the dressing with the salad in a giant wooden bowl, helped by Peter Hatch, the retiring director of gardens and grounds, being honored during the evening.
“I feel that, buried here in the ground, are all the values of our democracy,” she said, thrusting her hands into the salad greens. “And we have to dig them up, eat them, and digest them.”