The Real Story Behind Thomas Jefferson's Ice Cream Recipe

We've got it so you can try it!

a portrait of thomas jefferson beside a scoop of vanilla ice cream
Photo: Getty Images

Thomas Jefferson left behind quite a legacy upon his death on July 4, 1826, including penning the Declaration of Independence, serving as governor of Virginia and ambassador to France, and, of course, being elected the third president of the United States.

Jefferson's legacy wasn't only political, however. He had a foodie side too. He's credited with the first known recipe recorded by an American. An ice cream recipe that has been recreated and is currently being served at Carvers' Café at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.

How Thomas Jefferson's Ice Cream Recipe Was Rediscovered

"I found a sign that had been around [the national memorial] for a while that read Thomas Jefferson brought ice cream to the U.S.," Lloyd Shelton, food and beverage director at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, who was also a history major, states. "I did my research and found out that's not true, but while doing my research I discovered the recipe."

It is indeed a common misconception that Jefferson introduced ice cream to the United States. In actuality, Jefferson has a well-known history with ice cream but accounts of this treat being served in American colonies date back to 1744. English cookbook author Hannah Glasse included an ice cream recipe in the 1751 edition of her popular "Art of Cookery." Scholars believe that Jefferson may have first tasted ice cream during his time in France, between 1784 and 1789, and returned to the U.S. with "quatre moule a glasse," or four ice molds, along with other ice cream-making tools.

Though Jefferson didn't introduce ice cream to the United States, he is credited with being the first American to write down a recipe (housed at the Library of Congress). He also elevated the dessert's popularity when he had it served at the White House during his presidency, between 1801 and 1809. Dinner guests during that time period recounted: "Ice cream very good, crust wholly dried, crumbled into thin flakes." And another: "balls of the frozen material inclosed in covers of warm pastry, exhibiting a curious contrast, as if the ice had just been taken from the oven."

The chilled dessert grew in popularity such that Honoré Julien, who cooked for Jefferson in the White House during his presidency, took out an advertisement in 1810 in the "National Intelligencer" that he would serve "ice creams on Sunday next, and afterward every Wednesday and Sunday, during the season..." at his confectionary shop on F Street.

Upon his discovery, back at Mount Rushmore, Shelton and his colleagues posted a promotional sign touting Jefferson's tie to ice cream on the Avenue of Flags, "… and people loved it. They loved it so much that pretty soon I ran the Xerox copier out of ink, making copies of the recipe," says Shelton.

"The next thing we did was create a card with the recipe," he continues. "But more than anything, people wanted to taste the food. That was a challenge that took two years to get together."

Recreating Thomas Jefferson's Ice Cream Recipe

That challenge of recreating Jefferson's ice cream recipe was taken on by Pride Dairy in Bottineau, North Dakota. The original recipe called for two bottles of good cream, six yolks of eggs, half-pound of sugar, and a stick of vanilla. Today's recipe is very similar.

"[Pride Dairy] came through for us, and figured out the logistics of not only making the ice cream, but bringing it to Mount Rushmore," says Shelton. "They sent us several samples, and we were immediately sold... We have several partners to get the ice cream [to Mount Rushmore] from nearly 500 miles away," he adds.

Shelton also notes that the team at the dairy went so far as to actually research the most likely place where Jefferson would have procured his vanilla beans, which back then would have been Madagascar, though "we don't know this for sure."

"That [Madagascar vanilla] is what Pride Dairy uses to this day to make the Thomas Jefferson ice cream. They make it 300 gallons at a time; I don't think Jefferson ever made it that large," Shelton says with a chuckle.

Ice cream enthusiasts can enjoy a scoop (or more!) of the updated version of Jefferson's recipe at Carvers' Café at Mount Rushmore, and at Pride Dairy's ice cream shop in Bottineau, North Dakota.

Since the café introduced the scoops in 2013, 500,000 guests of the memorial have enjoyed the Jefferson-inspired treat, and another estimated 25,000 ice cream cones will be served at the café this year.

"Anyone can — and I certainly encourage them to — try it, and make it at home," says Shelton. "I'm glad I happened to stumble upon that old sign."

Ready to give it a whirl? Try this recipe provided by Shelton and Mount Rushmore National Memorial and dip right in!

Jefferson's Ice Cream Recipe — Modern Ingredients and Preparation

  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 quart heavy whipping cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Beat egg yolks until thick and pale. Gradually add 1 cup of sugar and a pinch of salt. Bring cream to a boil and slowly pour in the egg mixture. Transfer to the top of double boiler cook until thickened. Remove and strain through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl. Once cool add vanilla. Freeze, as usual, with one part of salt to three parts of ice. Place in a mould, pack in ice and salt for several hours. For electric refrigerators, follow usual direction, but stir frequently (originally adapted by Marie Kimball for "Thomas Jefferson's Cook Book").

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