Ask people what they know about Dolley Madison, and the first thing they may say is that she saved Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington before the British burned the White House in the War of 1812. The second thing often mentioned is that she served ice cream at the White House. They probably won’t say anything about the stuff of governance.
The First Lady, however, did have a political agenda. And she used entertaining to pursue it.
She aimed to foster national feeling among Americans whose loyalties typically lay with their states. She also sought to create a workable political culture in the embryonic capital. White House entertaining was key to her goals.
To bind Americans to the new federal government and to bring together the political community, the Madisons hosted weekly parties that they called “drawing rooms.” Others referred to the Wednesday gatherings as “crushes,” “jams” or “squeezes.” Men and women from varied walks of life met and mingled in the White House. Thanks to her elegant, but democratic style, Madison made the President’s House and the new capital real presences in Americans’ lives, and she gave men – and women – a space to talk politics, build connections and create a functioning government.
Madison pursued a nationalist political agenda with her parties. The food she served, however, belonged to a far-flung world of exchange. Seed cakes and macaroons, punch and Madeira were eaten and drunk on both sides of the Atlantic and well beyond. And the ingredients to make them came from far and wide. Sugar, wheat, spices, almonds, rum, Madeira and many other foodstuffs were produced, often by slave labor, in particular parts of the globalizing world, and traded to others. And, yes Mrs. Madison did serve ice cream at the White House, although she was probably not the first.
Cookbooks helped to shrink the world too. Madison solicited recipes from other American women so she could use the White House kitchen to showcase the young country’s cuisine. But many of her party foods, such as the seed cakes and macaroons mentioned by numerous guests, were featured in British cookbooks sold in the American market. A recipe for fairy butter, a compound butter perfumed with orange-flower water, almost identical to the one made in Dolley Madison’s kitchen, was included in Hannah Glasse’s popular “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.”
By offering food and drink to Washington’s political class, ordinary Americans and foreign visitors Wednesday after Wednesday, the so-called “Republican Queen” made herself, in Daniel Webster’s words, “[t]he only permanent power in Washington.”
AFR contributor Amanda Moniz teaches cooking classes on Dolley Madison’s mix of parties and politics.
This recipe for a compound butter perfumed with orange-flower water was served at Dolley Madison's Wednesday "drawing rooms." The recipe is adapted from "The Presidents’ Cookbook" by Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brook (Funk & Wagnalls, 1968). Serve on toast, biscuits, scones, muffins or seed cakes. Or try on bread with ham or prosciutto.
- Yolks of 2 hard-boiled eggs*
- 1tablespoon orange-flower water (or try rosewater)
- 1tablespoon powdered sugar
- 2 ounces (½ stick) butter, softened
Using a mortar and pestle or a fork, mash the yolks. Add the orange-flower water and the powdered sugar and mash together until smooth.
Mash in the butter and then scrape the mixture into a fine-grained strainer and push the compound butter through. Scrape into a small serving bowl and smooth the top.
*For fully cooked yolks that still have a creamy texture, put the eggs in the water after it’s boiling and boil the eggs for 12 minutes.