Friday, July 23, 2010

Vacation: Montpelier and Meander

On our drive down to Charlottesville Monday, Francoise noticed pillars on many structures. At first, red soil and large homes with fat round pillars reminded her of Tara from Gone with the Wind. Then we saw shacks with skinny square pillars. Tiny ranches had pillars on front porches. A trailer home had pillars; the Shell gas station convenience store had pillars. Only barns and silos seemed exempt from pillar frenzy. Francoise, who had already expressed an interest in seeing a plantation on this trip, now really wanted to tour a plantation. Monticello's plantation tour had disappointed her. And the best selection of plantation tours ~ down the James River south of Williamsburg ~ was just too far to go in one day. So our compromise was James Madison's Montpelier.

Not knowing much about James Madison, we took the house tour, which in
cluded stories of three generations of Madisons, as well as reports of archaeology discoveries at Montpelier. Because of hard economic times after Madison's death, his widow Dolley had to sell furniture and other household items. Also, during their lifetimes, when they were away from Montpelier, Dolley's ne'er-do-well son came and spirited off silverware and other valuables to sell for drink and gambling. The house, which has undergone a major recent restoration, is largely unfurnished. The search is on, however, for their furnishings, or at least what historians can determine might be similar to their furnishings.

I liked hearing about
clues in this search. For example, in restoring the house, archaeologists looked behind some walls. In one spot, they found a mouse nest with a scrap of paper handwritten by James Madison, a scrap of newspaper from his time, and a scrap of wallpaper. What a find! Outside the senior Madisons' wing of the house, archaeologists are now digging in hope of finding artifacts from the slave quarters and stables.
James Madison (junior, the fourth U.S. president) himself was not the commanding figure that Jefferson was. His enemies said he was about five-foot-two, his friends said five-foot-four, and he certainly was shorter than Dolley, which is why one never sees images of them standing side by side. Jefferson was six-foot-two-and-a-half in an age when height averaged five-foot-five or so. Often, Madison is considered to be just an echo of Jefferson. But he was an intellect in his own right. By age 14, he had read every one of his father's 600 books. His own library later numbered in the thousands of books. He was multilingual and studied governments of every kind of many countries as he was penning our Bill of Rights in order that the United States might learn from history. And although Madison was influenced by his good friend Thomas Jefferson, he made decisions, for example in the architecture of Montpelier, independent of Jefferson's advice.

Dolley Madison is famous for her hospitality. Because of the 24-foot-deep ice cellar Madison kept, Dolley and her kitchen slaves were even able to make ice cream for their parties of 90 on the lawn or 25 overnight guests (yikes!). Our guide said one flavor she served her guests was oyster ice cream (yikes again).

Our next stop was just to be our last night's lodging, but it turned out to be the plantation of Francoise's dreams. Although not a working plantation, it had the requisite pillars and gardens and horses. Anyway, she w
as pretty excited to see the Inn at Meander Plantation, which made me glad since we hadn't gotten down to the James River.

The Inn, established in 1727, was the first plantation settled in Madison County. Its mossy brick pathways, narrow wooden staircases, and slanted doorways and floors whispered its age. The plantation's first owner and Thomas Jefferson's father surveyed and drew the first map of Virginia. Current owners Suzie Blanchard and Suzanne Thomas give cooking classes and operate a gourmet restaurant in addition to the bed and breakfast. As I wandered the property and
admired vigorous vegetable and herb gardens, my mouth watered. I was pretty sure this lovely produce would end up in my dinner.

Sure enough, for dinner, I had heirloom tomatoes, kalamata olives, basil, and mozzarella cheese so fresh, I was sure the water buffalo it came from must be under our table. Second course: local white corn soup, which Suzie told me has four (count 'em, four) ingredients, corn, onions, thyme, and chicken broth. The white corn must have been very fresh and very sweet! Intermezzo: lemon sorbet. Third course: roasted quail with cinnamon sweet potatoes and roasted asparagus. Fourth course: chocolate espresso pot de creme with chocolate-covered strawberry. I'd like to describe the purity of these flavors, but words fail me.

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