The president wanted chicken à la king.
It was not to be.
The year was 1944, in the midst of World War II rationing, and Franklin D. Roosevelt requested the creamy chicken dish for his final inaugural luncheon. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt, among whose many gifts a discriminating palate was not known to number, intervened. She employed a notoriously penny-pinching housekeeper named Henrietta Nesbitt, whose parsimonious pantry was the bane of visiting guests. For the 2,000 luncheon guests, Nesbitt instead served up chicken salad, unbuttered rolls, unfrosted pound cake and coffee.
Jan. 20, 2005
Inaugural Luncheon Menu in honor of The President of the United States and Mrs. Bush and The Vice President of the United States and Mrs. Cheney
Roasted Missouri Quail
Brined Root Vegetables
Steamed Lemon Pudding
Apple Wild Cherry
"The New York Times wrote in some dismay about the event," said Shirley Cherkasky, a culinary historian retired from the Smithsonian Institution. "After all, there were alternatives to rationed items like butter and sugar. And toastmaster George Jessel asked in his speech at the luncheon, 'Mrs. Roosevelt, how did you manage to make chicken salad with so much celery and so little chicken?' "
Was it the nondemocratic implications of chicken à la king (as opposed to à la president) that turned the first lady off? More likely she was worried about appearances. During wartime, Mrs. Roosevelt may have thought that the president's guests ought to share the deprivation endured by the rest of the country.
If we are what we eat, as more than one gastrointestinal philosopher has proclaimed, the nourishment dispensed at presidential inaugurations should tell us something about ourselves as a nation during the era in question.
The 2.8 million jelly beans devoured during Ronald Reagan's first inaugural festivities, for instance, signaled a return to gaiety and lighthearted consumption after the Carter years. A decade later, Bill Clinton brought broccoli back to the inaugural luncheon after George H.W. Bush had banished it. The mood of the country in 1992 was more upbeat and open -- even to green vegetables.
Flip back to 1889, when Benjamin Harrison served -- among other delicacies -- Blue Point oysters on ice, sweetbread pate à la reine, breast of quail à la Ciceron, pâté de foie gras à la Harrison, terrine of game à la Morton and pyramid of nougat Renaissance. No wonder they called it the Gilded Age.
Contrast that with the menus for the second inauguration of President George W. Bush this week and the language turns to English instead of French. Guests at three balls -- to which donors of between $100,000 and $250,000 were invited tonight -- will dine on lobster medallions with orange and grapefruit sections, filet of beef tenderloin with asparagus, baby carrots, potatoes au gratin and Georgia peach crumble with vanilla ice cream.
At President Bush's first inaugural, the dinner menu was also American: a seafood assortment, lamb with red Swiss chard sauteed with cranberries, and a mushroom and corn souffle. For dessert, an apple tart and cinnamon ice cream.
The exclusive luncheon following the swearing-in, where the president dines with congressional leaders in the Capitol, is the province of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Tomorrow's meal, marking the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition reaching the Pacific and the centennial of Theodore Roosevelt's second inaugural, will reflect elements of both eras.
The opener, scalloped crab and lobster, will be prepared in a cream sauce popular in the late 19th century. Roasted Missouri quail with chestnuts and brined root vegetables will follow, though the Corps of Discovery probably never ate this on "amber-colored pressed velvet tablecloths," as the congressional guests will. As for dessert, steamed lemon pudding was a favorite of Teddy Roosevelt, and it will be served with apple wild cherry compote, reminiscent of Lewis and Clark.
The tradition of Congress putting on a post-inaugural lunch for the president dates only to 1953, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower was served creamed chicken, baked ham and potato puffs. Before that, there was a period when the new president and first lady were invited to lunch at the White House by the outgoing president and first lady. Those must have been less partisan times.
The country had to grow up a little before inaugural meals became symbolic and solemn occasions. George Washington ate lunch alone after his 1789 New York swearing-in.