An Ice Cream Dish That Shaped American History
Image Credit: Hamilton


And the Schuyler sisters are the envy of all

"Yo, if you can marry a sister you're rich, son!"

"Is it a question of if Burr, or which one?"

If you're a fan of the Hamilton musical, you may remember these lyrics from "Winter's Ball", the sequence that sets up the meeting between Alexander Hamilton and the two Schuyler sisters (we're sorry Peggy!) who would shape his life in indelible ways: his sister-in-law Angelica, and his future wife Elizabeth aka Eliza.

In the musical, "Winter's Ball" leads to "Helpless" (Eliza's ode to her love-at-first-sight for Alexander) and then the stunning "Satisfied" (in which Angelica alludes to how — and why — she shifted Alexander's attentions from herself to her younger sister). 

Whether or not there actually was a love triangle between Hamilton, Angelica and Eliza is a matter of some contention (Lin-Manuel Miranda did take myriad creative liberties with his musical), what is a matter of fact is this: on this day, in 1780, Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler. 

Hamilton wrote prolifically on legal and political subjects (fortified through the day by cups of strong coffee, despite medical advice that he stick to tea), but he devoted little to no time to record any of his thoughts on food. While disciplined in his daily routine (an early riser who spent the morning hours in study and advocated the same to his oldest son, Philip), he was by no means an ascetic. He enjoyed the sensual aspects of life (be it wine, women, or nights on the town as a bachelor) as much as he cherished his intellectual pursuits — an appreciation perhaps spurred by the desperate and impoverished circumstances of his childhood and early adulthood in the Caribbean.

Food historians posit that in the Hamilton household, Eliza Schuyler possibly served meals rife with Dutch influences, as a nod to her own ancestry. A hearty split pea soup with rye bread and some smoked bacon, for instance, might have made a frequent appearance at the dinner table.

But it is not these homely meals that find mention in records of Hamilton's legacy. Instead, it is a dinner hosted by Thomas Jefferson in 1790, at which Hamilton was one of only two guests (the other being James Madison) that would prove to be the most historically significant meal of Alexander's life. 

In the musical, Aaron Burr sings of the "Room Where It Happened" — this hush-hush dinner at which Jefferson and Madison negotiated with Hamilton on two critical aspects of American domestic policy. The two Southerners agreed to let Hamilton's fiscal plans pass in Congress, if he in turn would support shifting the nation's capital to Washington DC. The "Compromise of 1790" as this negotiation is known, was a showcase for a bit of nifty dinner diplomacy on the part of Jefferson. 

During his years in France, Jefferson had developed a taste for fine French cuisine. His enslaved head chef, James Hemings (the brother of Jefferson's mistress Sally, who had six children by Thomas; the Hemingses were half-siblings to Jefferson's deceased wife Martha), had mastered French culinary techniques while in Paris. There was one dish in particular that Jefferson developed a fondness for: ice cream

When Jefferson and the Hemingses returned to his estate, Monticello in Virginia, they took several ice cream moulds with them. A detailed recipe for vanilla ice cream in Jefferson's handwriting is among the oldest recorded references to the dish by an American. An ice cream freezer and ladle were listed among Monticello's kitchen appliances.

So ice cream was on the menu when Jefferson had Hamilton and Madison for dinner, all of it prepared to perfection by James Hemings. Hamilton is said to have been very impressed by the main course, a beef dish. But it was Hemings' dessert over which he "exulted", going into raptures over a "delicious vanilla ice cream enclosed in a warm pastry, like a cream puff, giving the illusion that the ice cream had come straight from the oven", which we now know must have been profiteroles.

Hamilton may have guarded all the other details of that top-secret meeting, but he seems to have waxed eloquent about the ice cream to Eliza once home. The Hamiltons were soon serving ice cream at their own dinners as well, including, it is believed, introducing it to George and Martha Washington.