The History of the Inauguration Meal
All that pomp and circumstance can sure make a newly-inaugurated president hungry. After the parade down Pennsylvania Ave, the swearing-in and the inaugural address, it's tradition for the new commander-in-chief to chow down on a celebratory meal. In recent times, that meal has taken the form of the "inaugural luncheon" hosted by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC) and takes place in the Capitol's National Statuary Hall where Jefferson Davis can stare at guests while they eat.
The custom dates back to our very first president, George Washington. After his New York City inauguration (New York was the country's capital at the time), he was escorted back to his lower Manhattan house for a meal but declared that he only wanted to dine with his beloved wife Martha. Except there was a problem - Martha hadn't left their Mount Vernon home preparing for her departure a month later. So, according to the LA Times, George ate alone.
Since that time, the inauguration meal has evolved from intimate and low-key to big and rowdy to fancy and formal. As we prepare for the 58th presidential inauguration, here's the history of inaugural meals and some highlights (and lowlights) of the previous 57.
Jefferson the French Foodie
While the second president John Adams also dined alone (in Philadelphia, the site of the US capital from 1790 to 1800) on his big day, Thomas Jefferson certainly did not. Jefferson's inauguration in 1801 marked the first time the event occurred in Washington DC and the newly elected president invited several dozen guests to join him. The exact menu isn't known but it's likely that Jefferson made sure some of his favorite foreign dishes were included like french fries, waffles and macaroni and cheese. While we might think of those as pretty all-American foods today, they were more exotic at the turn of the 19th century. Jefferson developed a taste for all of them during his time as America's minister to France. In fact, Jefferson so preferred food from outside the United States that fellow Virginian revolutionary Patrick Henry accused him of being a traitor due to his rejection of "his native victuals in favor of French cuisine."
Party in the White House...and on the Front Lawn
It was under the presidency of soft spoken and shy James Madison that the inaugural meal turned into an outright party. However, this wasn't his doing, but rather his wife and First Lady Dolley Madison's who invited over 400 guests to break bread at midnight at the White House with the president. Described in Poppy Cannon's 1968 book "The President's Cookbook" as "Madam Hospitality," Dolley believed all parties should abide by the rule "the more the merrier" even if James got a bit cranky about it. That menu is also likely lost to history (though it probably included Madison's home state of Virginia staples like country ham and corn muffins), but legend says that the highlight was a rich, frozen, milky treat - ice cream.
After being denied the first time due to rather shady dealings, Andrew Jackson finally entered the White House in 1829... where thousands of supporters joined him. As was the custom at the time, after the inauguration ceremony, a "open house" took place where anyone could show up to the presidential mansion, shake the new president's hand and enjoy snacks and alcoholic refreshments. As many as 20,000 people may have showed up to greet the populist president, many of whom didn't care much for the White House's fine furniture. Men in muddy work boots stood on top of upholstered chairs to get a better view of Jackson. Waiters were jostled and bowls of orange punch were spilled on the pristine white carpet. Any food and refreshments that were put out were casualties of the masses and gone within seconds. Unable to manage the crowd, Jackson escaped out the back door and enjoyed a steak dinner with friends at a hotel. The White House staff finally got people out of the house by setting up bowls of whiskey-laced punch and ice cream on the front lawn.
Party Like Lincoln
While we may hold somber memories of Lincoln's presidency (perhaps because we know the outcome), he sure did know how to throw a heck of a party. His second inaugural ball is the stuff of legends, with 4,000 dancing and eating the night away in the old Patent Office (today, it's the National Portrait Gallery). The menu featured such 19th century delicacies as smoked tongue en geleé, burnt almond ice cream, blancmange and terrapin stew. The buffet wasn't served until midnight which led tired, hungry and likely very drunk attendees to rush the buffet table all at once. The next day, the Washington Evening Star reported on the mess that was left behind, "The floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cake and debris of foul and meat."
Glittering Gilded Age
The Gilded Age (from 1870 to 1900) featured a smorgasbord of expensive, large and opulent inaugural celebrations. The 1881 inauguration meal of James A. Garfield included 15,000 cakes, 3,000 rolls, 350 loaves of bread, 100 gallons of pickled oysters and 250 gallons of coffee (perhaps because the party went late into the night). President Cleveland allowed his beloved corned beef and cabbage to be replaced by white swan-shaped jellied molds of pâté de foie gras. Benjamin Harrison's 1889 menu had oysters à la poulette (oyster stew), cold tongue en Bellevue, quail breast, terrapin Philadelphia style and mayonnaise of chicken (chicken salad). What was most impressive of all, however, was the cake. It stood six feet high, nearly nine feet square and weighed 800 pounds in the shape of the Capitol building.
With both World War I and World War II occupying American's minds during the first half of the 20th century, the inaugural meals were a lot more intimate and a lot less fancy than previous years.
For example, Franklin Roosevelt's housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt prepared every one of FDR's four inauguration meals. For the 1937 meal, she made a simple meal of ham, tongue and sweet potato casserole with marshmallow - which was a favorite of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Eight years later, she served two thousand people an "austere, ration-conscious luncheon" meant to show solidarity with the troops still fighting in the war aboard. The menu included chicken salad, rolls sans butter, frostless cake and coffee with no sugar. While a nice gesture, the luncheon toastmaster George Jessel (credited by some for inventing the Bloody Mary) quipped, "How is it humanly possible to make chicken salad with so much celery and so little chicken?"
It was Dwight Eisenhower who brought back the fancy inaugural luncheon back to the White House and started the tradition we now have today. Hosted by the JCCIC, the new general-turned-president ate creamed chicken, baked ham and potato puffs in the Old Senate Chamber. JFK's luncheon focused on American specialties like "Prime Texas Ribs of Beef au jus" and "New England Boiled Stuffed Lobster with Drawn Butter." Although dessert was, as it simply appeared on the menu, "mints and coffee." While Jimmy Carter cancelled his luncheon, Reagan picked it back up in 1981 with a menu dedicated to California spotlighting his home state's produce. Both Bushes finished up their meals with vanilla ice cream. And four years ago, Barack Obama went for sea and land by serving up steamed lobster with New England clam chowder as the first course and hickory grilled bison as the second.
As for President-elect Trump, his menu remains a question mark. A request for the menu or information from the JCCIC has so far gone unanswered. In addition, over a half a dozen chefs and experts declined to comment on Trump's potential inaugural food choices. In this highly polarized political climate, it probably would be easier if all presidents were like George Washington and just ate alone.