Butter-stained notes from the front:

The army of inaugural ticket holders will be traveling on its stomach in Union Station through Monday, as "A Taste of America" entertains the estimated 40,000 who will queue to pick up those tickets. The entertainment is food from 38 restaurants and drink from 17 wineries that have been invited to serve the throng -- for free -- hors d'oeuvres-size portions of their specialties.

Organized by Bill Anton, a Detroit restaurateur, the feast was put together in less than a month. Each was told to prepare about 4,000 samples. Casa Grisante in Louisville knew better; it brought 40,000 portions of conch salad and is ready to call home for more if necessary.

Restaurateurs start arriving Thursday, and cooked all day yesterday at kitchens in the D.C. Courthouse and the Department of Energy -- where 5,500 meals for government workers had to be prepared simultaneously.

The food marathon's two sancking areas already were crowded last night after the first hour -- when the press party was about to end and the first inaugural VIP crowd was about to arrive. Long lines formed at booths, and some aisles were nearly impassable.

Some restaurants have location in their favor: Hyatt Hotel's raw beef carpaccio and vegetable tempura are at the entrance. Nearby, Gold Seal Wines asks, "Would you like a little champagne?"

Anthony's Pier 4 of Boston is opening clams and oysters by the bushel. The Sardine Factory of Monterey, Calif., flew in West Coast prawns. La Vieille Maison of Boca Raton, Fla., brought for its lobster bisque 125 pounds of lobster meat plus 400 pounds of shells and heads to flavor the broth. Tony Roma's, with branches as far as California, is charcoal grilling its spare ribs right next to Union Station.

The longer the distance it has come, it seems, the more elaborate the food.

Ernie's of San Francisco is presenting precision-decorated molds of pigeon en chartreuse. Next to it, Mr. Smith's of Georgetown is blending strawberry daiquiris. La Scala of Los Angeles has carved paper-thin medallions of vitello tonnato; Bull Feathers of Capitol Hill simply has long loaves thinly spread with steak tartare.

The chefs served until 11 last night and expected to begin cooking again at 6 this morning. They may spend, several estimated, $10,000 each to show their wares in Washington. What they would see in return was what they could glimpse on bus rides between the kitchens and Union Station.

"Is that the White House?" one chef asked yesterday.

"No, the capitol."