Ice cream: the favorite dessert of the founding fathers

By Molly Yun, researcher at A taste of history

As a researcher for Chef Walter Staib’s A taste of history show, it’s always surprising to come across foods that were as popular in the 1770s as they are today. Chef Staib will look through vintage cookbooks and find “recipes” (now called recipes) for exotic and old-fashioned foods, like peacock hen, and inspire the team to learn more. But sometimes we also find familiar foods like ice cream!

Chef Staib is a food historian who focuses on the gastronomic specialties of early America. He discovers what society’s elites, such as the Continental Congress and later the U.S. Congress and presidents, dined on in their homes and at the White House. The team filmed their show A taste of history in the first five presidential residences and cooked in many historic places.

Chief Walter Staib
Chef Walter Staib, host of A taste of history

We’re always looking for first-person accounts of what these famous foodies ate. It turns out ice cream isn’t a modern-day love affair. Long before the first ice cream truck hit our streets, Thomas Jefferson, George and Martha Washington, and even ordinary settlers were clamoring for ice cream. Ancient Romans enjoyed frozen treats during the reign of Nero, when large blocks of ice were harvested from nearby mountains. In the 1700s, ice cream and sorbet were all the rage in European courts. This love of creamy, decadent, cold desserts spread throughout the American colonies as epicureans settled into their new homes.

In 1790, the first ice cream parlor opened in New York. In late June 1791, a notice appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette announcing details of that year’s Fourth of July celebration. On the menu that year at Grays Gardens were Mr. de la Croiz’s confections, including “ices of great variety.” Large estates, including Mount Vernon and Monticello, had their own “ice cream machines.”

In the next book A sweet taste of history, due out in November from Globe Pequot Press, contains hundreds of 18th-century dessert recipes. We worked with pastry chef Diana Wolkow to recreate the sweet treats of a bygone era in modern terms for today’s cooks. These recipes include an entire chapter on ice cream and this excellent vanilla version below. In the upcoming book and on his show, Chef Staib dedicates a favorite American treat to a famously festive epicurean first lady.

Dolly Madison
Dolley Madison loved ice cream. (As performed by Lynn Uzzell in Montpellier)

Dolley Madison, first lady of the United States and wife of James Madison, fourth American president, popularized ice cream in the White House. This was still a very impressive dessert as modern freezers were not yet introduced. To make ice, one estate used an icebox made of large blocks of ice cut from frozen water, packed on straw, and kept in a cool place.

Chef Staib recently visited the Madison House in Montpelier, Virginia to learn his tips for making the best ice cream. He cooked some of the first lady’s favorite dishes, including the Southern-inspired menu of Hoppin’ John, Virginia Ham and Oysters, Kidney Dijonnaise and topped it all off with a dessert of vanilla ice cream. hand-churned, peaches and raspberry sauce.

Dolley preferred ice cream to oysters. She used small, sweet oysters from the Potomac River near her home to make an interesting dessert. In 18th-century cookbooks, chefs didn’t stick to the basics. Recipes for parmesan ice cream, asparagus ice cream, chestnut cream and many other flavors that do not adorn our tables today were popular. But if you prefer something a little sweeter and more conventional for the 21st century palate, add other toppings at the last moment, like cookies or fresh berries, or enjoy it on its own.

Dolley Madison and Chief Staib

Vanilla ice cream

Chef Walter Staib of A Taste of History shares this recipe for vanilla ice cream. In a fun article, Chef Staib explains that the Founding Fathers played a crucial role in introducing the dessert to America, and that even Dolley Madison was a fan.


  • 4 cups heavy cream
  • 3 egg yolks
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 vanilla pod, split and seeded


  1. Prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl with ice water and placing a slightly smaller bowl on top.
  2. In a medium saucepan, bring the cream, half the sugar, pods and vanilla pod to a boil.
  3. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and remaining sugar until light.
  4. Slowly add the hot cream to the egg mixture, ¼ cup at a time, whisking all the time.
  5. Return the pan to the heat and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
  6. Transfer the custard to the ice bath and let it cool, stirring occasionally, until it is cool to the touch. Remove from ice bath, cover and refrigerate until cold.
  7. Run the ice cream maker following the manufacturer’s instructions.


This vanilla ice cream is pictured with sauce and almonds, which you can add or modify to include your own toppings.

Yield: 1 1/2 liter

Meet the author

Molly Yun

Molly Yun writes about her love of the culinary arts, historical customs, and a variety of topics in print and online. His passion is to tell the real stories of the past through relevant topics. She researches and writes scripts for the PBS cooking show A taste of history. His theatrical script was seen on stage as part of the Philadelphia International Arts Festival. She is co-author of the upcoming book A sweet taste of history recipe book.

Meet Chef Walter Staib

Chef Walter Staib

Walter Staib has made numerous appearances on local and national cooking shows, such as the Today show and the Food Network show. The best thing I ever ate And Iron Chief. He is the host of the Emmy Award-winning show A taste of history, which received the 2012 James Beard Foundation nomination for Best Local Television Show. The show allows Staib to share 18th-century cuisine with a growing audience. Currently, it can be seen nationwide for season four on PBS and on national cable on RLTV. The series received three Emmy Awards during its first two seasons.

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