Inauguration Lunches: A Peaceful Transfer of Power Never Tasted So Sweet
George Washington ate his first meal alone. Andrew Jackson partied with possibly 20,000 guests before sneaking out the back door. Prepare your own inaugural feast this year, inspired by presidential repasts in our shared history.
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The peaceful transfer of power is something Americans used to take for granted, but our nation has recently learned it’s a tradition worth celebrating. And while this year’s inaugural luncheon was canceled in December as a result of the pandemic, it doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate at home with dishes plucked from the pages of history. These meals over the last few hundred years have sometimes been simple affairs, sometimes elaborate feasts. In times of war, the inaugural table has often reflected rationing and the national austerity; in boom times, there have been lavish celebrations.
But whatever the year, presidential inaugurations have been opportunities for Americans to break bread together and celebrate our shared efforts to strive toward that more perfect union. This year’s theme is “America United,” in the spirit of our national motto, “E pluribus unum,” which translates as, “Out of many, one.” May we, in our hearts and our kitchens, turn our focus to the great things we share as a nation, and our sincere efforts to build a better future together.
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But first, a brief (and tasty) history lesson
The first inauguration meal was a private affair, indeed. George Washington was installed as President in New York City (our capitol at the time), and refused the dining companionship of anyone but Martha, his wife — who hadn’t made it to town. So he went home and had dinner alone. His successor, John Adams, also ate his inaugural meal alone.
We don’t know the inauguration menu of Thomas Jefferson, our third Commander-in-Chief, but he did make a point to introduce America to some of the exotic new foods he’d discovered while abroad: macaroni and cheese, French fries, and waffles!
Who likes to party?
First Lady Dolley Madison, who liked a party, cranked things up in 1809 with an inaugural ball for her crowd-shy, introverted husband James. They hosted 400 (to his displeasure), and served a midnight meal with — as legend has it — a fancy new dessert that had guests swooning: ice cream!
Twenty years later Andrew Jackson was followed back to the White House by perhaps 20,000 of The People after his inauguration. The open house quickly spiraled out of control as the congratulatory crowd got very comfortable (and turnt!), tracking mud on the furniture, causing expensive damage, and spilling punch all over the white carpet. As the party raged, Jackson slipped out a back door and met friends for a quiet steak at a nearby hotel. White House staff finally lured the partiers out of the building with bowls of whiskey punch and ice cream on the front lawn.
America’s lone bachelor President, James Buchanan, really knew how to have a good time and in 1857 hired French chef Charles Gautier for his inauguration. Guests dined on 75 hams, eight rounds of beef, 60 saddles of mutton, venison, 500 quarts of jellies, 500 quarts of chicken salad, and 400 gallons of oysters — which, very conservatively, is at least 28,000 oysters!
At President Lincoln’s inauguration party (held two days after the ceremony in 1865), the elaborate feast featured a 250-foot table boasting oyster stew and pickled oysters, lobster salad, four preparations of beef and three of veal, smoked tongue en gelée, roast turkey, eight different pyramids of sweets (including the U.S. Capitol created from spun sugar), an assortment of cakes and tarts, savory and sweet jellies and creams, six types of ice cream (including a burnt almond flavor), three fruit ices, and “coffee and chocolate” to round out the menu. The buffet was served at midnight after an evening of spirited dancing and drinking for 4,000 guests; by all reports it turned into quite a melee, just shy of an inaugural food fight that left a huge mess and terribly sticky floor the next morning.
Bake back the Capitol
President Benjamin Harrison’s chef would have won any baking competitions of his day: The inauguration menu in 1889 featured an 800-pound cake in the shape of our beloved Capitol building (the same one that was attacked but two weeks ago) that towered six feet tall and measured nine square feet.
But it wasn’t until President McKinley’s inauguration in 1897 that a celebratory luncheon was held at the Capitol itself, when an intimate meal was hosted for the President and a handful of guests.
A stately affair
In 1953 the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies was formed and served the three-course luncheon still popular today, hosting the President and Vice President, their families, members of the Supreme Court, Cabinet nominees and members, and guests from the Congressional leadership, in a well-heeled crowd of generally about 200.
But the luncheons have varied in both size and spirit since then — during World War II Franklin D. Roosevelt’s chef, Henrietta Nesbitt, insisted on an austere menu in solidarity with the troops and national rationing. She served chicken salad, rolls with no butter, cake with no frosting and coffee with no sugar. One guest later dryly observed he had never had “so much celery and so little chicken” in a meal.
But recent presidents have enjoyed more lavish feasts: President Barack Obama began his first inauguration luncheon with a Seafood Stew, followed by a Brace of American Birds with Sour Cherry Chutney and Molasses Sweet Potatoes, rounded out with Apple Cinnamon Sponge Cake with Sweet Cream Glacé.
Similarly, outgoing President Trump’s 2017 inauguration luncheon boasted Maine Lobster and Gulf Shrimp with Saffron Sauce and Peanut Crumble, with a second course of Grilled Angus Beef with Dark Chocolate and Juniper Jus and Potato Gratin, and finished the meal with Chocolate Soufflé with Cherry Vanilla ice cream — a far cry from the President’s professed preference for fast food.
2021: A shelter-in-place, do-it-yourself inaugural feast
Because of Covid-19, nobody gets to attend an official inaugural luncheon this year. But in the spirit of American resilience and ingenuity, we’ve gathered a collection of inauguration-themed cocktails, savory dishes, and desserts to prepare at home to celebrate our shared heritage, tradition of a peaceful transfer of power, and hope for a better future together.
In recent years the libations on offer at the luncheon have generally been American wines, but the last four years have perhaps given cause for a stiffer quaff — it’s time for a cocktail!
Inspired by the whiskey punch that Andrew Jackson’s clever White House staffers used to entice the partying mob out of the building, this pretty punch uses winter citrus like orange and lemon for natural sour notes, balanced by tea that boasts taxation with representation, and sugar.
This cocktail was inspired in part by the return of Teddy Roosevelt to the U.S. after he spent 15 months in East Africa. Though he was more of a coffee drinker, a return from his time in the wilderness called for something stronger. After last year, you may need a stronger drink too!
The Painkiller’s moment has come. Let rum, pineapple and orange juice, and cream of coconut take you to your tropical happy place far, far away.
Sticks and stones may break one’s bones, but a delicious Snowflake Spritz, with its unusual blend of absinthe, vodka, lemon, cucumber, and fresh herbs, will never hurt you.
This classy cocktail gets the job done and looks great doing it with white rum, orange curaçao, dry vermouth, and a dash of grenadine.
President-elect Joe Biden is a teetotaler — toast the next President with this non-alcoholic refresher popular in Colonial times that’s both sweet and tart with a touch of vinegar. Huckleberries are the wild native cousins to blueberries, with a deep purple color and more complex sweet-tart punch.
In recent history, the first course of the inaugural luncheon has featured U.S. fish, seafood, or shellfish.
A Champagne vinegar dressing pops the cork on this celebratory salad that showcases that beloved American crustacean, lobster.
Shrimp, clams, and cod adorn this classic New England dish that is at once cozy and elegant.
Two American greats come together in this elegant preparation: delicate and sweet crabmeat, and sweet corn, which is indigenous to North America.
Oysters were plentiful on American shores and helped the early pilgrims avoid starvation in winter. What began as a humble foodstuff is now the toast of the town for any celebration, especially when topped with Pernod, shallots, and butter.
Since 1953, this course has traditionally been a celebration of American meat or game, and occasionally chicken or Southern ham.
44th President Barack Obama served Hickory Grilled Bison at his second inauguration. The mighty buffalo are native to this land and used to roam the plains in great herds, but nearly went extinct after European settlers colonized America. Thanks to conservation efforts they’ve made a comeback.
Americans have long loved savory meat pies, with chicken as the most economical choice in leaner times. This cozy classic is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
Is there anything more American than a delicious steak? Embrace your inner Andrew Jackson and serve these simply seasoned, perfectly prepared New York strip steaks at a quiet dinner away from the maddening crowds.
This exquisitely spiced ham takes advantage of an American invention — sparkling cola — and elevates it with ham for a celebration of Southern cuisine.
These sides take inspiration from inauguration menus of the past and often feature regional ingredients, both savory and sweet.
Potato puffs were on the menu for Eisenhower’s inauguration lunch in 1953, and still have a comforting charm today.
In Native American lore, the three sisters are beans, squash, and corn, all of which are indigenous to the Americas and grow well together. This delicious salad combines the three to round out a truly American feast.
Sweet potatoes are high in Vitamin A and a Southern favorite. Molasses was one of the primary sweeteners in Colonial times — they come together in this very American side dish that pairs beautifully with red meat or chicken.
All inaugural celebrations end on a sweet note, infused as they are with hope for a good four years to come, and redolent with the best of American fruit and desserts.
America’s sweetheart gets a boost from cranberries and a pop of fresh citrus juices for an apple pie that truly shines.
We cannot tell a lie: This cherry cobbler is the bees’ knees.
Recreate a piece of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration with this classic American treat.
In Colonial times, and for many folks today, no one could afford to waste food. Bread pudding was a clever and frugal way to turn stale bits of bread into an appetizing treat. Adding chocolate and homemade vanilla whipped cream gilds the lily and transforms an expression of scarcity into something special.