Oyster Ice Cream Was First Lady Dolley Madison's Favorite Flavor

There's always one — the chef on the reality cooking competition show who turns to the ice cream machine. You can almost see the lightbulb and cartoon text bubble form over their head: "Trout ice cream! I can win this thing with trout ice cream." Or scallop. Or veal. Or pork. (All of these are real examples of ice cream flavors chefs have cooked up during the long-running Food Network show "Iron Chef America.")

These flavors seem so out there that it's difficult to believe anyone would scream for that ice cream — yet the seemingly convoluted combinations aren't necessarily a new idea. In fact, there was a time in U.S. history when savory — and, yes, seafood — ice creams were fairly commonplace. Even First Lady Dolley Madison, the wife of fourth U.S. president James Madison, is rumored to have favored frozen confections of the seafood variety, specifically oyster ice cream.

Rob Brantley, a colonial foodways interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg who knows a thing or two about food history, confirmed oyster ice cream was a thing back in the day. "Essentially it was frozen oyster chowder," Brantley explained to the Colonial Williamsburg Journal. "They served it unsweetened, with the oysters strained out. Imagine the astonishment of the guests who were served something like that in the summer."

What goes around comes around

The former first lady wasn't alone in her purported proclivity for oyster ice cream. Although it's widely believed she favored oysters harvested from the Potomac River, some naysayers insist Dolley Madison's love of oyster ice cream has been inflated by history. On the other hand, Madison's personal friend, Mary Randolph, included a recipe for the unlikely confection in her 1824 cookbook, "The Virginia House-Wife" — and as Colonial Williamsburg's Rob Brantley observed about the period dessert, it was basically frozen oyster stew minus the oysters.

In 2011, well-known chef and altruist José Andrés partnered with the National Archives in a campaign to explore the influence of early-American recipes on modern-day tastes. During the collaboration, he prepared Randolph's version of oyster ice cream. And as he told NPR's "The Salt," he kind of liked it. "You will get that cream, with a beautiful, oyster, salty, briny flavor ... and you will have this amazing oyster-flavored ice cream that will be as much savory as it could be sweet."

Still not sold? Madison was also known to indulge in more traditional flavors, like vanilla with peaches and raspberry sauce, and Randolph's collection of ice cream recipes includes longtime standards like vanilla, raspberry, coffee, coconut, and chocolate. Plus, Brantley's research into historic ice cream flavors revealed plenty of combos — tea, pistachio, and chocolate with a touch of cayenne — that would be right at home in a 21st-century ice cream parlor along with more unusual flavors like parmesan and asparagus.