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Inaugural Meals And The National Mood

Ken Ringle, The Washington Post, 1/19/05

[Washington Post researcher Bobbye Pratt and researcher Jonnie L. Jacobs-Percer contributed to this report.]

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.

"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.

Thomas Jefferson walked back from his inauguration to lunch with his fellow boarders at Conrad and McMunn's boarding house at C Street and New Jersey Avenue. Curators at Monticello have never discovered just what he ate but say that it's recorded that the third president"took his usual seat at the end of the table farthest from the fire."

Perhaps the most rambunctious inaugural meal occurred in 1829 after the swearing-in of Andrew Jackson. The celebrated frontiersman and democrat, who instead of receiving bows had bowed to the people after taking the oath of office, had planned a modest reception at the White House featuring wines, cakes, ice cream and orange punch. He was, after all, still mourning the death of his wife a short time before.

So enthusiastic were his rough-hewn followers, however, that 20,000 men, women and children stormed the White House, brawling, tracking in mud, breaking furniture and china, sucking down all the punch and sending Jackson fleeing out a side window to refuge in a nearby hotel. Harried White House cooks filled tubs on the lawn with whiskey to lure the merrymakers out of the executive mansion.

By the 1845 inauguration of James A. Polk, the nation was expanding, which was naturally reflected in the celebrations. Polk's inauguration included a four-foot high cake adorned with a flag for each state and territory.

For James Buchanan's inaugural meal in 1857, the concept of real celebratory repast had taken hold. Buchanan's included $3,000 worth of wine -- a huge sum for the time -- 400 gallons of oysters, 50 quarts of chicken salad (presumably more robust than FDR's), 60 saddles of mutton and four of venison, eight rounds of beef, and 1,200 gallons of ice cream.

After taking the oath of office in 1861, Abraham Lincoln returned to the Willard Hotel for the sort of homespun luncheon one might associate with the rail-splitting lawyer from Illinois: mock turtle soup, corned beef and cabbage, parsley potatoes and blackberry pie. That night, things were more elaborate. The centerpiece of the inaugural dinner was a spun-sugar model of the Capitol, whose dome was then under construction. Rowdy guests nearly wrecked the event, however, some snatching whole patés, chickens and legs of veal off the table and carrying them off for private consumption.

A century after George Washington's inauguration, 800 guests celebrating its centennial made up for its initial modesty. They tucked into an eight-course banquet that was a monument to both Federalist ambitions and French cuisine. Green turtle soup, salmon with Hollandaise, filet of beef in Madeira sauce, sweetbreads with truffles, snipe in pastry -- the dishes went on and on. Mushrooms, haricots verts, flageolet beans, pâté de foie gras, spring chicken in watercress -- plus several palate-cleansing sorbets, cakes, pastries and elaborate sugar constructions, all washed down with Sauternes, sherry, port, a Chateau Romanee Contee burgundy and, from Bordeaux, cases of Chateaux Leoville Barton.

Not all the food on Inauguration Day has been elaborate. Calvin Coolidge, who always looked like he was sucking on a pickle, had pickles for breakfast on his 1923 Inauguration Day. And for all the expansiveness of his inaugural supper, William McKinley for lunch grabbed a corned beef sandwich and a cup of coffee in a Senate committee room in 1897.

For all its later culinary swagger, the Kennedy administration began with relatively straightforward American fare -- crab gumbo, lobster Newburg, roast beef, stuffed mushrooms with pureed spinach and molded tuna salad -- on that bright, snowy day in 1961.

The sparest inaugural meal may have occurred a little less than three years later. Vegetable soup and crackers. It was served to Lyndon Baines Johnson aboard Air Force One in Dallas: Nov. 22, 1963.