Fruits, Roots, and Leaves
What would Thomas Jefferson think of the crowds that will converge on his lawn on September 12? There will be llamas and sheep, twanging banjos, people canning vegetables under circus tents, gardeners gathering in clusters and sharing secrets. Festival-goers will eagerly wait in line to taste heirloom tomatoes as if they were getting the next iPhone. A chef will light a fire in Monticello’s old kitchen to demonstrate old recipes. Gardeners will put down their hoes to talk about Jefferson’s revolutionary gardening techniques and their own. Monticello’s Ninth Annual Heritage Harvest Festival promises to be a mash-up of a Garden Club meeting, 4-H fair, History Channel program, and bluegrass festival in the shadow of the house of the nation’s First Gardener.
In delicious anticipation of the upcoming festival, I thought back to the last one, this same time last September. Jefferson was fanatical about plants and claimed he wished he could have been a gardener instead of president. He dutifully recorded his plantings each year—sometimes grouping his vegetables under the categories of “fruits,” “roots,” or “leaves,” depending on which part of the plant was eaten. With this Jeffersonian schematic in my mind, I set off to explore the Eighth festival, to see if the old man himself would have enjoyed it. If he were alive today, would Jefferson have been entranced by this horticultural carnival? Or would he have come out of the house, shaken his cane at the crowds, and yelled “get off my lawn?”
Gabrielle Rausse, head of grounds at Monticello, showed us Jefferson’s fruit trees. He led us out to the peach trees and Sangiovese vines, whose grapes had just been picked. And when someone in the crowd asked what a pawpaw was, he took the group in an impromptu pawpaw quest down Jefferson’s old roads to look for the custardy native fruit.
Next, Chuck and Cindy Shelton of Albemarle Ciderworks and their crew hand-cranked an old wooden cider press as thick, brown juice from Hewe’s Crab, Detroit Red, Roxbury Russett, and Mother Apple varieties trickled out. We all drank some of this delicious but sadly unfermented cider as the rain plunked on the tent. Would it make sense to follow this up with a stop at Carpe Donut’s stand filled with steaming hot cider doughnuts? Why yes, yes it would.
The French Laundry’s Andy Keefer, who will be back this year, held forth on tomatoes, fruits in Jefferson’s classification, the notorious “love apple” of old, which Jefferson’s nephew recommended eating to keep “the blood pure in the heat of summer.” People tasted heirloom tomatoes, puckering after trying lemony Zebras and smacking their lips after juicy Black Cherries.
There were some surprises in the fruit category. Pat Brodowski, Monticello’s head gardener, took a group into the rows of gleaming yellow squash, also a “fruit.” And she put us to work, passing out duct tape to swipe up squash bugs. She revealed she hangs bars of Dial soap at night on the squash to keep the marauding deer away, who apparently are scared off by the idea of personal hygiene. Duct tape and soap—I could see the gears in the gardener Jefferson’s head turning. After all, this is a man who once reviewed a scientific tract on manure and found it to be a “charming treatise.” The verdict on fruit at the festival? Jefferson would have found it to be mouth-watering.
Could Jefferson have been the first to eat French fries in America? That’s what retired Monticello gardener and author Peter Hatch threw out while taking us through the restored Monticello garden. He certainly wasn’t the last. The garden had rows of potatoes, as well as luscious sweet potatoes, okra, and potato pumpkins, introduced by the enslaved African-Americans who, of course, did the real work in keeping the garden. All this tubery talk made me hungry, so I wandered up to the picnic area and ate some hand-cut fries from a food truck.
Along the slope above the garden I was startled to see Mr. Jefferson himself—had his ghost really come here and bought a general admission ticket? No, it was Jefferson actor Bill Barker, greeting visitors and giving them gardening tips. Below him, near a blacksmith stoking his fire, were two Barbary Coast sheep (one of Jefferson’s favorite breeds). The year before, a sheep had escaped, leading Monticello staff in a wild chase down the mountain and putting out a lost sheep alert on the radio until it was recovered. This year the pen looked doubly strong.
The band struck up a tune dripping with Americana, with a thumping upright bass and fluttering mandolin notes. The music washed over the rows of pumpkins and waving Mandan corn below. Yes, I thought, these are our roots, and Jefferson would have thought the same.
The Monticello garden had beds of purplish sea kale. Sea kale is delicious, Gabrielle Rausse advised the crowd, if cooked with olive oil, garlic, and wine. Of course, he added, that’s how he cooks everything. In the Farmer’s Tent, aspiring growers, the majority of them Millenials, huddled around farmers giving advice on how to grow local and sustainable food and save heritage varieties from extinction at the same time. Do you know the right time to kick your free-range turkeys out of the barn to let them fend for themselves in the great outdoors? A self-proclaimed “maverick” turkey farmer revealed the secret to the crowd. Did you know stinging nettles can be delicious if properly washed? (If not, a farmer helpfully added, “they do sting!”) Jefferson’s take on all this leaf talk today? “I am but a learner,” he wrote about gardens, “an eager one indeed but yet desperate." Here was learning to be had, freely given.
The sky began to darken. A man walked down the trail past Jefferson’s grave, saying to his friend, “I had my first paw-paw today. It was awesome.” I thought about Andy Keefer’s keynote talk. He recalled that Jefferson said that agriculture is a gamble. Mother Nature is the House, said Keefer, and the House always wins. But you always get something back as well. And the Harvest Festival showed how you can have some fun along the way. Gamble that it was, planting, Jefferson said, “is one of my great amusements.” Of course he would be counting the days until the next Heritage Harvest Festival.