Monticello Farm Table
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
On a fresh April day in 2012, Monticello looked green, from the buds on the Spitzenberg apple trees to the Aleppo lettuce poking up in the garden. My wife Liana and I had come down to walk the grounds and meet one of our heroes, Alice Waters, there for a book signing. When we reached our turn in line, she was excited to find out that Liana was Cuban and we talked of the growing urban gardening movement in Havana. On a spring day full of promise, it was easy to believe that the whole word was moving towards her vision of local, organic food moving straight from farms to restaurants, regenerating fields, changing minds, and stuffing bellies along the way.
But not at Monticello. Not yet anyway. That day we took a quick look at the sad café across from the book signing and beat a hasty retreat off the mountain for a Spanish tapas restaurant in Charlottesville. Little did we realize back then what Waters was already plotting.
Last weekend at the Heritage Harvest Festival, she helped unveil the fruits of her and many others’ labors. Farm-to-table, which she helped popularize at Chez Panisse in Berkley in the ‘70’s, has finally returned to Monticello after more than a century’s absence. For years, she had been prodding the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to do more with the bounty of produce they produced in their garden and giving them technical advice on how to do so. “Jefferson would have been very, very frightened by that café,” she said at the festival.
“I’ve always wanted to be in a place,” Waters went on, “where I could give people a bottle of olive oil and say, go ahead, feast.” Here, the site of Jefferson’s magnificent garden, was finally becoming such a place. While she talked, volunteers readied food for our tasting: tomato okra stew and asparagus bean salad, with ingredients from Tufton Farm, once Jefferson’s satellite plantation two miles off the mountain.
These and other dishes are now for sale in the renewed Farm Table café, now stocked with Albemarle Pippins, eggplant sandwiches, artisanal cheese, and much more. Keith Nevison, the inaugural farm manager at Tufton, planted an acre’s worth of crops last year and has plans for expanding, not only growing Jeffersonian food but turning the farm into a campus for agricultural education. “A lot of what Jefferson did has relevance today,” he said.
Monticello is not shying away from the stories behind food, even when these are painful. At the festival, acclaimed chef and writer Michael Twitty noted the work of the enslaved in growing Jefferson’s food—and that of James Hemings and other highly-trained African-American chefs who brought refined dishes to the table, blending French influences with their own skills and traditions. “As much as there are troubling aspects to this,” he said, referring to Monticello’s past, “there’s also an opportunity for healing.”
And so it has always been: from spring to fall, from the birth of an idea to its delivery. Not in one literal parade of seasons; over seven years separated my first April encounter with Waters to her September unveiling of the initiative. And there will be many winters before the full vision comes to pass: minor setbacks to contend with, money to raise, crops to experiment with. And a hell of a lot of weeding.
But, as Waters said at the festival, “the hardest thing is to start.”
She paused. “And it’s not even that hard.”