There’s a special pleasure in reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson while living in the city he lived in for many years in a country he basically designed. The biography is a slim one, I must confess; I love reading about the early years of our nation, but there are only so many Shay’s Rebellions and trips back and forth on the Atlantic I can put in my head before I need a snack.
Here are three things you might not know about Jefferson. Two of them come from reading this biography; one of them does not. If you can guess which fact was not included in the book I’m reading, I’ll make you a bowl of macaroni and cheese.
1. Maybe I’m outing myself as a boob for not knowing it, but I didn’t know that for about five years (1784-1789) Jefferson lived in Paris. It wasn’t a vacation: he was serving in a kind of ambassador position alongside Ben Franklin and John Adams as America got itself together. As you probably do know, France was pretty important in the whole “America” thing and there was plenty of stuff for the three bigwigs (ha!) to do in Paris. Not surprisingly, Jefferson loved living there, and I just love thinking about one of our founding fathers eating pan au chocolate on his way to the office.
2. On lists of “Fascinating Facts About Thomas Jefferson”, you’ll often find that Jefferson owned thousands of books. You might even learn that he sold them to replenish the Library of Congress when it was sacked in the War of 1812. This is all true. Jefferson sold nearly 6,500 of his books to the Library for $24k. What isn’t mentioned is how he organized his library; he put all those thousands of books under one of three categories: Memory, Understanding, or Imagination. How cool is that? It was a concept based on a Francis Bacon book, apparently. I like that everything he read — and everything we read — can be put into those three categories.
3. Thomas Jefferson invented macaroni and cheese. Well, he didn’t invent it. But he really liked macaroni noodles with cheese baked in the oven; he probably had something similar in France (see No. 1) and it appears everyone who came to dinner at Monticello was served macaroni pie. The Jefferson-mac n’ cheese connection is a thing; there’s a lot about it on the Internet. I’ll leave it to you to explore further. We can all be very, very glad there has not yet been an ad campaign for mac-n-cheese featuring Jefferson’s face.
This weekend I have to get everything ready for a big event in Iowa, but I have promised myself to take a break and go to the Jefferson Memorial. It’s a 20-minute ride on the subway to get there, one more reason why I adore my new hometown. I will lay a pan au chocolate on the steps, Mr. President.