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James Madison’s favorite food. January 18, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben, our friend and fellow Poor Richard’s Almanac contributor Richard Saunders, his girlfriend Bridget and I were having supper last night, and for whatever reason—blame it on Ben Franklin’s birthday—the conversation turned to the Founders and their favorite foods.

You may know that Thomas Jefferson’s favorite food was macaroni, which he first encountered in France. But what about the other Founding Fathers, and most especially James Madison, America’s puniest President?

Madison’s brain was unquestionably the biggest thing about him. Standing 5’2″ (some have claimed he was 5’4″ or even 5’6″, but as his biographers have noted, these folks tended to elevate his height based on how much they admired him) and weighing less than 100 pounds, Madison was also physically weak and prematurely shriveled. It probably shocked early American society when he married the lovely, vivacious widow, Dolley Payne Todd, who became legendary for her lavish style of entertaining, setting the standard for all subsequent First Ladies.

Despite Dolley’s famous cakes, cookies, and other treats, which she prepared herself, we all doubt that she could tempt James to eat much more than a few spoonfuls of gruel or broth. When the Madisons entertained, Dolley sat at the head of the table and carved and served the food so James could avoid attracting attention to his meager appetite. (His sparing eating and drinking habits served him well, though, since despite chronic weakness and ill health, he lived to be 85, the last of the Founders to die.) But, we all wondered, was there anything he actually liked to eat? Or did he spurn Dolley’s renowned French-Virginian cuisine and eat solely to sustain life?

Heading to my good friend Google, I found to my astonishment that there actually was something James Madison loved to eat: ice cream. Ice cream?! His wife Dolley apparently created a rage for ice cream in America, and she had three favorite flavors, apricot, pink peppermint, and strawberry. I’ll admit I’ve never encountered apricot ice cream—though I’m sure it would be delicious—but peppermint and strawberry remain popular favorites to this day. Needless to say, it’s easy to see why ice cream became the rage in the hot, steamy, unairconditioned summers of Washington, D.C. and the Madisons’ native Virginia.

However, there’s another view of President Madison’s favorite foods. According to “The Food Timeline: Presidents’ Food Favorites,” “It is quite possible Mr. Madison’s favorite meal consisted of Virginia ham, buttery rolls, apple pie, and cider.” We observe that they left out a Dolley Madison specialty, coleslaw, which is also a favorite of ours, but perhaps the cabbage was too much for James Madison’s delicate stomach.

Wondering about Washington? The Father of Our Country apparently enjoyed fish, nuts, fruits (including cherries), mutton, and Madeira, a fortified wine like port or sherry. His tastes were simple and his appetite hearty, though he tended to leave the desserts and fancy dishes to his guests. (Check out your favorite Presidents’ preferred dishes at http://www.foodtimeline.org/presidents.)

And what about Ben himself? As you might expect, Dr. Franklin enjoyed a wide variety of fare, including baked apples, rice, and such native American foods as turkey, corn, potatoes, and cranberries. He enjoyed honey and maple syrup, had a yen for pickles, and was especially fond of Parmesan cheese. He also introduced tofu (tofu!!!), rhubarb, and kale to America. And he wasn’t averse to a punch made from rum, sugar, and fruit, as well as being known for a fondness for beer and wine. (After all, he was the guy who said “Beer [or Wine] is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”)

Frankly, we’d have loved to be guests at the Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison family tables. It all sounds good to us!

             ‘Til next time,




1. Becca - January 19, 2011

Silence, I can’t think of the name of it now, but there’s a punch in the Georgette Heyer books that reminds me of the rum punch you say Ben Franklin liked! No ratafia but something the gentlemen drank. 🙂

BTW, I’m so glad I figured out how to subscribe by email. Now, I get all of your wonderful posts delivered directly to my inbox!!

Thanks, Becca, and thanks for subscribing! When I read the description of Ben’s preferred punch, I of course thought of all the modern-day fruit/rum punches that taste so yummy and prove so toxic! Let’s hope Ben was a little better adapted to the effects! Mind you, I knew that the Founders were used to drinking alcoholic beverages rather than water, which they (rightly) believed was polluted and a cause of disease, but even I was shocked to read that George Washington, after drinking home-brew during every meal, chased it down with FIVE glasses of Madeira! Yow!!!

2. Silence Dogood on James Madison’s Favorite Foods « Smart Kitchen - February 15, 2011

[…] Silence of course, researched the subject and then blogged about it. Her post can be found at James Madison’s Favorite Foods. That's a Viking Range! The Kind a Viking Could Have […]

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