As to what will be served at the balls? That’s still a mystery, but we can work up an appetite by reviewing the culinary history of such landmark events. Things started off intimate and modest with Founding Fathers George Washington and John Adams; both dined alone after their inaugurations. Over-the-top celebratory meals really hit their stride in the 19th century. Here are highlights culled from The Post’s archives and a few other sources.
The food at the ball for James Buchanan, often thought of as America’s worst president, sounds not so shabby: 400 gallons of oysters; 500 quarts of chicken salad; 1,200 quarts of ice cream; 60 saddles of mutton; 8 steamship rounds of beef; 75 hams; and 125 tongues, plus $3,000 (in the currency of the day) worth of wine. Oh, and a very big cake.
President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball was held at the Patent Office Building, what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. At the bargain price of $10 (admitting three), attendees were treated to an embarrassment of culinary riches. The bill of fare boasted a variety of meaty succulents, including beef, veal, turkey, chicken, grouse (“boned and roast”), pheasant, quail, venison, foie gras and ham. The other half of the menu was devoted to sweets. Among the options: “ornamental pyramides” of nougat, orange, macaroon and “caramel with fancy cream candy cocoanut,” plus cakes, tarts, fruit ices and ice creams (white coffee, burnt almond, chocolate, etc.). And you thought your typical wedding buffet was bad: “The onset of the crowd upon the tables was frightful,” the Evening Star reported. “Numbers who could not find immediate room at the tables could be seen snatching whole patés, chickens, legs of veal, halves of turkies, ornamental pyramids, etc., from the tables and bearing them aloft over the heads of the shuddering crowd.”
We can only imagine the Herculean effort it must have taken to feed the 12,000 attendees at Benjamin Harrison’s inaugural ball, held at the Pension Office. They feasted on Roman punch (a semi-frozen concoction of rum and champagne that was apparently all the rage in the 19th century), hot steamed oysters, Philadelphia-style terrapin, paté de foie gras and turkey.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural luncheon took place at the White House, catered by the Willard Hotel and serving 1,800 guests at 95 cents a pop. According to a copy of a memo from the Library of Congress, the menu included chicken salad on lettuce leaves, goose-liver finger sandwiches, potato chips and apricot halves. And, as the memo specifies, no coffee. At least they promised the food would be “attractively arranged on one plate.” (In a separate note, the hotel’s catering manager informs White House executive housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt that it will be hard to acquire the number of chickens needed for the lunch and asks whether the government “could release one hundred boxes of fowl to us.”)
Gefilte fish, minestrone and Greek salad were on the menu at Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second inauguration, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2013, by Andrew F. Smith).
Each of Lyndon B. Johnson’s five inaugural balls showcased a four-tier, 700-pound cake. Each cake was made with 150 pounds of sugar, 150 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of butter and 600 eggs. Mrs. Johnson directed the cakes to be sent to charities around the area afterward, but that didn’t stop some ball-goers from digging in. “At the Sheraton-Park Ball . . . guests, unaware of the plan, began eating the cake or taking pieces as souvenirs,” The Post reported. “At the Shoreham Ball, guests grabbed fistfuls of cake on their way out, even though no one had cut the cake.” In case you were wondering, one cake was replaced and the other patched up before being delivered to their intended recipients.
Not much to see here, folks. Jimmy Carter’s parties featured . . . peanuts (from Georgia, of course) and pretzels.
The inaugural committee of George H.W. Bush sponsored a one-night event with dinners at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Building Museum and Union Station. The cost: A cool $1,500 per person. With the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s first inauguration to celebrate, the theme of the dinners was “From George to George.” A consortium of local caterers dished up a lavish menu:
First course: Maryland crab loaf on a bed of leeks, black-eyed peas and carrots, accompanied by roast walnut and black pepper bread and a dill sauce.
Second course: Roast loin of veal stuffed with mushrooms, along with asparagus bundled in carrots, and corn pudding.
Salad course: Watercress, Boston lettuce and baby spinach with Vermont cheddar cheese.
Dessert: Apple cranberry betty with cinnamon ice cream and bourbon custard.
Bill Clinton’s second inauguration featured 14(!) official balls. Tom’s Cookies of San Francisco provided free sweets: a Clinton Cookie (peanut butter and banana), Heavenly Hillary (brownie with nuts), Tipper Chipper (chocolate chip with M&Ms) and Gore S’more (brownie, marshmallow cream, chocolate ganache and graham cracker).
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America details the fare from George W. Bush’s first inaugural: a seafood assortment, lamb, chard with cranberries, mushroom and corn souffle, and an apple tart with cinnamon ice cream. In 2005, his celebrations featured lobster medallions with orange and grapefruit, filet of beef tenderloin with asparagus, baby carrots, potatoes au gratin and Georgia peach crumble with vanilla ice cream.
Besides the balls, another long-standing tradition is the inaugural luncheon at the Capitol hosted by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Barack Obama’s first one offered seafood stew, a “brace of American birds” (duck, pheasant) with sour cherry chutney and molasses sweet potatoes and apple cinnamon sponge cake and sweet cream glacé. His second inaugural luncheon, in 2013, served steamed lobster with New England chowder (complete with “sweet potato hay”), hickory-grilled bison with red potato horseradish cake and wild huckleberry reduction, and Hudson Valley apple pie with sour cream ice cream, aged cheese and honey. These and other menus can be found on the committee’s website.