• October 2015

What Did James and Dolley Madison Serve to Guests?

Although little is known about President James Madison’s favorite dishes, biographers note that his love of agriculture, which was fostered as he grew up in Virginia, remained with him throughout his life. Bountiful, harvest-style dinners included Virginia ham, buttery rolls, apple pie, and cider.

But it was Madison’s vivacious wife, Dolley Madison, who changed the way Americans entertained.

According to authors of “The Presidents’ Cookbook,” Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks: “No president’s wife before her was so thoroughly in charge of the nation’s social life. On the surface, the social scene during Madison’s administration followed the pattern established by Thomas Jefferson.”

Indeed, the cuisine was French as well as English-Virginian, the wines were the finest French vintages, and the hospitality was as open and cordial as Jefferson’s.

Yet, the authors note, Dolley Madison was an innovator in her own right. “She had a style of her own, and did not share Jefferson’s preference for intimate gatherings above all else. Dolley enjoyed having masses of people about — for dinner, lawn parties, luncheons, teas, and dances. Dolley’s idea of entertainment was ‘the more the merrier.’”

Some of her signature dishes included in the cookbook include Chicken and Okra Soup, Pickled Eggs, Crab Omelet, Croquettes, Corn Oysters, Fairy Butter (hard boiled eggs, orange-flower water, powdered sugar, butter), Ginger Pound Cake, and a Yard of Flannel (alcoholic drink composed of ale, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, ginger, and rum or brandy.

We learn in “The First Ladies Cook Book: Favorite Recipes of All the Presidents of the United States,” by Margaret Brown, that “Dolley Madison was the recognized leader of Washington society. At dinner parties, Mrs. Madison gracefully took the reins. She presided at the head of the table with her guests on her right and left, Madison at the side and his secretary at the foot of the table. This saved him from the effort of serving the guests, drinking wine, and leading the conversation.”

You’ll be fascinated and delighted to learn more about this couple, including how quickly they married.

Did you know:

  • After a brief courtship spanning the spring and summer — 26-year-old widow Dolley Payne Todd married 43-year-old Congressman James Madison on Sept. 15, 1794.
  • As Madison continued to rise in the political ranks, first as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state and then as a two-term president of the United States, from 1809-1817, Dolley Madison served as a dynamic political partner, national hostess, and first lady.
  • In fact, Thomas Jefferson was a widower when he was president of the United States, and Dolley Madison assisted him with the social functions of the administration. Her first husband, John Todd, died of yellow fever in 1793.
  • After Madison’s stint as president, James and Dolley Madison retired in 1817 to Montpelier, where they managed a large plantation, entertained hundreds of visitors, and jointly edited Madison’s significant political papers — including his notes on the Constitutional Convention.
  • Madison predeceased Dolley Madison by 13 years, after which she traveled back and forth between Montpelier and Washington, DC, before permanently settling in the nation’s capital in 1844.

Click here to watch the podcast.

To read more about the Madisons, visit the Grateful American™ Foundation, founded by David Bruce Smith, and read his interview with Kat Imhoff — who has been president of The Montpelier Foundation since January 2013.

Photos courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation.

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