All the presidents’ meals: The history of inaugural food

When Donald Trump sits down to the table in Statuary Hall for lunch on Jan. 20, it’s safe to say his feast will be calm compared with Andrew Jackson’s first inaugural meal.

WASHINGTON When Donald Trump sits down to the table in Statuary Hall for lunch on Jan. 20, it’s safe to say his feast will be calm compared with Andrew Jackson’s first inaugural meal.

After Jackson was sworn in as the nation’s seventh president in 1829, about 20,000 people followed him back to the White House to celebrate with their new leader.

“Then, you could just practically walk in with no invitation, and they just mobbed the White House climbing on the furniture to see the president,” said Alison Kelly, a research specialist at the Library of Congress.   

Jackson’s kitchen staff brought barrels of spiked orange punch, a popular celebratory drink in the 1800s, out to the East Room, and chaos ensued.

“Buckets were spilled, glasses were broken,” Kelly said.

President Jackson eventually slipped out through the back door of the White House and ate his inaugural dinner in peace at a boardinghouse.

Ulysses S. Grant’s first meal as president in 1869 wasn’t much better. It turned into a full-fledged food fight.

“After a couple of hours dancing, they announced the buffet, and people just rushed the buffet, grabbing all of the food and shoving each other,” Kelly said.

When it comes to inaugural celebrations, plenty of things have changed since Jackson’s and Grant’s times — security, for starters. But over the years, food has remained a focus.  

The first meal Donald Trump will eat as president of the United States is lunch at the U.S. Capitol, a tradition that dates back to 1897 when the Senate Committee on Arrangements hosted a luncheon for President McKinley. In 1953, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies took over the menu planning and hosting responsibilities for the event.

The food served at the inaugural luncheon is often a reflection of the interests or roots of the incoming president. In 1961, Massachusetts-born John F. Kennedy dined on New England boiled stuffed lobster with drawn butter and deviled crabmeat imperial; Ronald Reagan’s menu in 1981 included a California garden salad.

Barack Obama’s first inaugural luncheon was Lincoln-themed, since it was the bicentennial of the 16th president’s birth. Herb-roasted pheasant and duck breast with cherry chutney were a few of the dishes served.

However, not every meal has been as delicious as Kennedy’s, Reagan’s and Obama’s.

Kelly, who recently organized a presidential food installation at the Library of Congress, says Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth inaugural luncheon was especially bad.

Roosevelt requested chicken a la king from the first lady’s housekeeper and cook, Henrietta Nesbitt, but the notoriously strict and austere New England cook refused.

“She said she couldn’t keep it hot for 1,800 people, so she switched to cold chicken salad on a lettuce leaf and cake with no frosting,” Kelly said.

To make matters worse, details published in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America say some of the chicken had spoiled and could not be used.

“Her food was very plain, and evidently FDR complained about it constantly,” Kelly added.

With music, gifts and several courses of food, planning the inaugural luncheon is no easy feat. But in 1977, the committee got a break. Jimmy Carter canceled his luncheon, decided to walk the entire parade route (he was the first president to do so) and threw informal “parties” instead of elaborate balls.

“They were very low-cost and relaxed, and he served pretzels and peanuts,” Kelly said.

Of course, not every president celebrates the assumption of office so modestly. Kelly said James Buchanan’s 1857 inaugural meal had 400 gallons of oysters, 500 quarts of chicken salad, 1,200 quarts of ice cream, eight rounds of beef, 75 hams, 60 saddles of mutton, four saddles of venison and $3,000 worth of wine — “Which was a huge amount at that time,” Kelly added.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has yet to announce the menu for President-elect Trump’s inaugural luncheon, but past menus and recipes including one for the lobster pie served at the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush are available on the committee’s website.

From Jan. 23 to Feb. 4 the Library of Congress will showcase a special inaugural display, complete with Lincoln’s first inaugural address, as well as menus, dance cards, newspapers and film clips. “Presidential Inauguration Treasures” will be on view between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the first floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building at 10 First St., S.E. The display is free and open to the public. 

 


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