Dolley Madison: The Recipe Swap

  Just as the Madison parlor was always full, so was their dining table.

The Early Madison Years

When the young widow Dolley Payne Todd became Mrs. James Madison in 1794, their first two years were spent in Philadelphia, then capital of the United States, where Dolley had lived since she was fifteen.Taught as a Quaker to scorn frivolity and fashion, Dolley Payne was accustomed to the “plain” image: gray gowns and bonnets, plain house accoutrements, and plentiful but plain menus.

Congressman Madison, on the other hand, seventeen years older than his 25-year-old wife, came from wealthy planters in central Virginia. While his personal style was plain enough, befitting his small-in-stature persona, he was also accustomed to participating in the gracious company of his elegant peers.

Having waited so long for the pleasure of marital happiness, Madison wanted to shower his pretty new bride with the best he could provide. He gave her an heirloom necklace as a wedding gift (her only jewelry other than her wedding ring). He is also said to have given her a generous sum of money for a new wardrobe. Since the Quaker elders disapproved of her marrying out of faith, they technically expelled her. But Dolley remarked on occasion, that she never believed she had the “soul” of a Quaker. And she always liked pretty things. 

She was happy to partake of Madison’s indulgence, and purchased new gowns and hats in bright colors and fine fabrics. Her Quaker gray gowns were for daily house chores. From the start, she opened the Congressman’s home to frequent visitors. She thrived on pleasant company, and her shy husband was delighted to bask in her popularity. It was a new experience for him. 

The Jefferson Years

One of the earliest images of the White House.

But in 1800, Thomas Jefferson was elected President, and immediately sent for his closest friend, James Madison, to be his Secretary of State. Dolley was eager to go to Washington, the new capital city; she had missed being where the action was.

Thomas Jefferson was a widower, whose daughter Martha Randolph, occasionally served as his hostess, but was destined to have eleven children, and not always available. Mrs. Madison, as ranking woman, was often asked to fill the breach. 

Secretary of State Madison – Dolley spruced him up a lot!

President Jefferson disdained large formal dining, preferring the “small table” of a dozen or so well chosen guests. Since Washington was such a new city, with a part-time population, and no well-established society, there was nowhere for the congressmen and senators, judges and diplomats and high-ranking officialdom, and even non-official prominent Washingtonians to gather informally.

Thus Dolley Madison opened the home of the Secretary of State to near-daily receptions and salons and luncheons, dinners and suppers. The house was open to everyone, regardless of political party or social rank. It not only won friends for her husband, but it began to influence people. 

Whether she actually did any serious cooking, then or ever, still remains fuzzy, but we do know that like Martha Washington, she was a collector of recipes. What is also definitive, was a few of her refreshment choices, then a great novelty. Like her seed cake, using caraway seeds, perhaps more reminiscent of rye bread. Or her decision to offer cups of hot bouillon at her receptions, as well as the traditional coffee and tea and punch.

Then there was ice cream, which she did not invent, but definitely popularized as a cherished dessert.

Ice Cream Clipart Free | Clipart Panda - Free Clipart Images

An all-time favorite dessert. But not oyster.

The White House Years

President James Madison

By the time James Madison was elected 4th President in 1808, the Madisons were well known and established on the political scene. Dolley’s long-standing, well-attended Wednesday evening “squeezes” were on everybody’s social calendar. No invitations were necessary. And everyone came.

Dinners, however, were different. Attendance was dictated by the finite number of people who could be accommodated at a table. But since the Madisons seldom dined alone, practically everyone in official Washington received a dinner invitation at some time or another. 

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The incomparable Dolley Madison!

Naturally the First Lady did not wash dishes or peel potatoes. She engaged an executive chef, and servants/services as needed. According to the delightful Dolley maven, historian Catherine Allgor, Dolley’s table was in the English style: meats served separately from dishes of vegetables. In time she adopted the French style, to include seasonings and sauces.

The Madison plantation provided many staple grains and vegetables, and Dolley relied on local game: deer, turkey, duck and a wide variety of seafood and shellfish from the abundant Chesapeake. The arrival of expert bakers and confectioners in the capital quickly resolved the dessert problem.

It became a distinct honor and privilege to be invited to Mrs. Madison’s table. According to Allgor, “In her skillful hands, people could be…easy, elegant and even a tad aristocratic. But the social atmosphere successfully masked the high political stakes.” 

The Recipe Exchange

Dolley Madison frequently decried any personal “politicking,” believing only in “politics by people.” For her, knowing parties, agendas and factions were secondary to knowing the people personally. Including their relatives.

Part of her outreach program was to write to the distaff member of important political (and other) families across the country – many of whom she had never met. These women considered it an honor to be contacted by Mrs. M. and hoped their prized recipe might be included in the next White House dinner. 

In exchange, Dolley was delighted to send one of her recipes – very possibly for “ice cream,” a new delicacy that might make her correspondent a queen of society in her own home town. It is not known if she included her favorite flavor: oyster. It never seemed to catch on.

Was it good politics? What do you think?


Allgor, Catherine, – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, 2000, University of Virginia Press

Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company

Gould, Lewis L. – American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy – Routledge Press, 1996

Moore, Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography, 1979, McGraw Hill

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