Now, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that quote because, despite describing the evening’s dresses, grand marches and banquet preparations with the kind of baroque detail that would make Michener blush, the Post reporters assigned to Harrison’s inauguration apparently couldn’t be bothered to use quotation marks when interviewing sources. But I can safely assume that Delmonico’s, then our country’s best gustatory stab at French sophistication, could not match the spread that Boldt and his team had prepared for the new president and his 15,000 guests.
According to the paper’s account, the throng gobbled down 40,000 raw oysters, 20,000 steamed oysters, 20,000 oysters a la poulette, 300 gallons of consomme, 7,000 chicken croquettes, 7,000 sweetbread patties, 7,000 roll sandwiches, 300 gallons of chicken salad, 200 gallons of lobster salad, 150 beef tongues, 150 Virginia hams, 150 turkeys, 1,000 quail, 800 pates de foie gras “a la Harrison,” 500 pounds of terrine of “game a la Morton” (a reference to Vice President Levi Morton), 300 quarts of Roman punch and 300 gallons of terrapins.
Compare that sumptuous 19th-century banquet to the food expected at President Obama’s Commander-in-Chief’s and Inaugural balls on Monday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. According to the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the reception-style meals will include “similar items from previous years, including an assortment of pastas and crudites.”
The architect of the 2013 inaugural ball menus will not be a self-made millionaire like Boldt, who virtually invented the luxury-hotel lifestyle. It will be Centerplate, the giant food service company better known for feeding us roller-grilled weenies at ballparks. The food appears to be such an afterthought that neither the Presidential Inaugural Committee nor Centerplate is releasing menus for review.
Organizers, however, did feed us a little spoonful of sugar to help the crudites go down: “In keeping with our efforts to keep the costs down and make this accessible to the American public, the menu is both celebratory and appropriate given the nation’s ongoing economic recovery,” a committee spokeswoman e-mailed me.
So how did official inaugural balls go from a feast fit for the four-star appetite of Diamond Jim Brady — or at least the mythical Diamond Jim Brady — to one that requires a trip to the Mickey D’s drive-through afterward? Most people I spoke to indicated that budget and security have been the driving factors in keeping food in check.
Eric Michael, co-founder of Occasions Caterers in Washington, remembers when he attended one of Ronald Reagan’s official balls in 1981. It was held at the Kennedy Center and, unlike some sumptuous soirees tied to the Great Communicator’s inauguration, this one offered a spread of peanuts and pretzels, Michael recalls. There was a cash bar, too.