Dinner We Can Believe In

The excitement over Tuesday’s presidential inauguration has reached such a fevered pitch that we’re beginning to worry things could get a little out of hand. Imagine all that hunger for change unleashed on, say, a buffet table, or a dessert tray, or an open bar. Think of it. We foresee a very real possibility that Obama’s first meal as president could more closely resemble a cross between a 19th-century beefsteak and the storming of the Bastille. If it does, though, it turns out it will have ample (and distinguished) precedent, according to an excellent LATimes article by the historian Andrew Smith:

Lincoln's inaugural committee had planned a lavish midnight buffet for the inaugural ball: terrapin stew, leg of veal, beef à l'anglais, foie gras, pâté, cream candies, fruit ices, tarts, cakes and more. The venue was the Patent Office, which had two spacious halls for dancing and dining. The buffet was set out in a corridor where patent models were displayed.

When the grand supper was announced, after several hours of dancing, the crowd rushed the table and people began grabbing, pushing and stuffing themselves shamelessly. In a matter of minutes, the sumptuous buffet was a shambles -- as were several of the patent exhibits.

But the Lincoln ball was a model of prim decorum compared to the scene following the inauguration of Andrew Jackson “the man of the people” in 1829:

When Jackson returned to the White House after the ceremony, he was followed by some 20,000 rowdy well-wishers hellbent on getting refreshments: ice cream, cake and lemonade.

The mob all but destroyed the White House; Jackson was forced to exit by a back door. The White House steward finally lured guests outside with tubs of whiskey-laced punch.

We fully expect Obama’s inaugural committee has planned accordingly, and that there will be enough ice cream and cake and, yes, whiskey punch to go around. But if, in the spirit of the times, they’ve chosen to forgo a lavish spread, we at least hope they’ll find a way to treat their guests to something better than Jimmy Carter, who, in lieu of a meal, passed peanuts and pretzels.

Jonathan Milder, Research Librarian
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