"Mrs. Madison ordered dinner to be ready at 3 as usual"


This past weekend marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland (August 24, 1814) and the subsequent burning of Washington, D.C. by the British during the War of 1812.  This humiliating defeat was certainly not America’s finest hour.  President James Madison, though, took his role of commander-in-chief literally that day and personally rode out to observe the situation at Bladensburg.  Madison remains the only president to have been engaged in battle while in office. 

Meanwhile, back at the President’s House Dolley Madison awaited her husband’s return.   In a letter to her sister Lucy Payne Washington Todd, Dolley hurriedly wrote:

“Three O’clock.  Will you believe it, my Sister?  We have had a battle or skirmish near Bladensburg, and I am still here within sound of the cannon!  Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him!  Two messengers covered with dust, come to bid me fly…”1

Dolley was not the only one to recount the frantic moments before the British arrival.  Paul Jennings was one of the Madison’s enslaved domestic servants in the President’s House as the British marched towards the capital city.  Later in life, as a free man, Jennings published a book entitled, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.  Jennings recalled:

“The President, with General Armstrong…[and] Colonel [James] Monroe…rode out on horseback to Bladensburg to see how things looked. Mrs. Madison ordered dinner to be ready at 3 as usual; I set the table myself, and brought up the ale, cider, and wine, and placed them in the coolers, as all the Cabinet and several military gentlemen and strangers were expected… When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the President’s party.” 2

This particular day, dinner was anything but “usual.”  Unfortunately we don’t know exactly what food Paul set out that ultimately made its way into the stomachs of victorious British soldiers, but his account does leave us with an image of a finely set table and a meal that the Madisons themselves were never able to consume.

Our interpreters this weekend had much better luck preparing and consuming a meal than Paul Jennings or the Madisons did 200 years earlier.  Among the recipes you’ll find “Shrewsbury Cakes,” making their appearance also 200 years ago in Mary Eliza Ketelby Rundell’s 1814 A New System of Domestic Cookery 


The Menu:


Cut slices of raw beef, put them in a stew pan with a little water, some catsup, a clove of garlic, pepper and salt, stew them till done, thicken the gravy with a lump of butter rubbed into brown flour. A hash may be made of any kind of meat that has been cooked, but it is not so good, and it is necessary to have a gravy prepared and seasoned, and keep the hash over the fire only a few minutes to make it hot.
Source: The Virginia Housewife or Methodical Cook.  By Mrs. Mary Randolph. Baltimore, 1838.



Put half a pound of the best fresh butter into a stew-pan on the fire, and let it boil till it has done making a noise; then have ready twelve large onions peeled and cut small; throw them into the butter, add a little salt, and stew them a quarter of an hour. Then dredge in a little flour, and stir the whole very hard; and in five minutes pour in a quart of boiling water, and some of the upper crust of bread, cut small. Let the soup boil ten minutes longer, stirring it often; and after you take it from the fire, stir in the yolks of two beaten eggs, and serve it up immediately,

In France this soup is considered a fine restorative after any unusual fatigue. Instead of butter, the onions may be boiled in veal or chicken broth
Source: Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches. By Eliza Leslie.  Philadelphia, 1840.



Peel some large fine tomatas, cut them up, and take out the seeds. Then put them into a deep dish in alternate layers with grated bread-crumbs, and a very little butter in small bits. There must be a large proportion of bread-crumbs. Season the whole with a little salt, and cayenne pepper. Set it in an oven, and bake it. In cooking tomatas, take care not to have them too liquid.
Source: Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches. By Eliza Leslie.  Philadelphia, 1840.


Cut off the stalk end first, and then turn to the point and strip off the strings; if not quite fresh, have a bowl of spring water, with a little salt dissolved in it, standing before you; as the beans are cleansed and trimmed, throw them in; when all are done, put them on the fire in boiling water, with some salt in it; when they have boiled fifteen or twenty minutes, take one out and taste it; as soon as they are tender, take them up, and throw them into a colander to drain. To send up the beans whole, when they are young, is much the best method, and their delicate flavour and colour is much better preserved. When a little more grown, they must be cut lengthwise in thin slices after stringing; and for common tables, they are split, and divided across; but those who are nice, do not use them at such a growth as to require splitting.
Source: The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook.  By Mrs. Mary Randolph.  Baltimore, 1838.



Sift one pound of sugar, some pounded cinnamon, and a nutmeg grated, into three pounds of flour, the finest sort; add a little rose-water to three eggs, well beaten, and mix these with the flour, &c. then pour into it as much butter melted as will make it a good thickness to roll out.  Mould it well, and roll thin, and cut it into such shapes as you like. 
Source: A New System of Domestic Cookery.  By A Lady (Mary Eliza Ketelby Rundell).  New York, 1814.


1. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Lucy Payne Washington Todd, 23-34 August, 1814, in The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison, ed. David B. Mattern and Holly C. Shulman (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003), 193.

2. Paul Jennings and John Brooks Russell, A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison (New York: George C. Beadle, 1865), 8-9.






















Left to right: Shrewsbury Cakes, French Beans, Baked Tomatas, Hashed Beef, Onion Soup. 



Kyle M. Stetz