Although Obama’s inaugural ball food is meant to signal gustatory austerity in tough economic times, other presidents have used their grand celebrations to make different statements. Historical accounts credit James Madison in 1809 with the first official inaugural ball held at Long’s Hotel on Capitol Hill, a party that attracted 400 of Washington’s elite. A Washington Post retrospective look at balls in 1933 pegs first lady Dolley Madison as the instigator of this tradition. “She loved society and all its doings,” wrote an unnamed author.
Subsequent galas sometimes had a more egalitarian air, like President Lincoln’s second-term ball in 1865. Tickets were $10 each for the party at the Patent Office, but as a Post story told it, “each gentleman could bring as many ladies as he chose and some brought half a dozen.” The scene turned ugly during a midnight supper of terrapin stew, foie gras, leg of veal, cakes and tarts.
“As soon as the doors were thrown open, one thousand hungry persons tried to push their way in at one time,” The Post account relates. “The crush which followed can better be imagined than depicted.”
Incoming presidents seemed to play a game of one-upsmanship with their inaugural balls in the mid- to late 19th century: James Buchanan, James Garfield and Harrison each staged parties with Brobdingnagian banquets worthy of NFL training tables. A Los Angeles Times report noted that Garfield’s 1881 inauguration dinner featured 15,000 “assorted cakes.” Only Rutherford B. Hayes, whose controversial election was confirmed only days before his swearing in in 1877, did not have an inaugural ball in that era.
The 20th century, that period of world wars and psychoanalysis, coincided with American presidents casting a cynical eye on inaugural balls. Woodrow Wilson, in fact, canceled the whole affair. It took Harry Truman — that Missouri farm boy — to revive the official ball in 1949, and John F. Kennedy took it to new heights. He attended a then- record five balls, one featuring two 500-pound cakes decorated with the president’s and vice president’s visage in icing.
Leave it to Jimmy Carter, who lived in public housing for a year, to bring the inaugural ball back down to earth. He refused to call them balls. To him, they were “parties.” The final touch for Carter’s parties? An homage to his roots and staple of his family’s business: peanuts.
To Carter, the peanut was a sign of hope. He had reversed his own fortunes with the lowly legume, but the snack would turn out to be a metaphor for the food to come at future inaugural balls: It would soon be “peanuts.”