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An Inaugural Memory: President Lincoln's Food Fight

Jan 20, 2013
Originally published on January 22, 2013 12:27 pm

A recently-published menu for Abraham Lincoln's lavish second inaugural ball in 1865 provides an interesting look at how different the nation celebrated its new president just seven score and eight years ago.

Smoked tongue en geleé and blancmange (a firm custard) shared room on the buffet table with roast turkey and burnt almond ice cream.

As Yale food historian Paul Freedman told Smithsonian Magazine writer Megan Gambino, the cuisine could best be described as "French via England, with some American ingredients."

"Oyster stew and pickled oysters. You wouldn't have found them in France as much," Gambino told NPR's Jacki Lyden. Gambino wrote about the menu of Lincoln's second inaugural ball for Smithsonian.com.

She also pointed out the presence of turtles on the menu. "Locavores would be excited about seeing terrapin stew on the menu. Actually, I read in an article from The Washington Post from 1880 that any pretentious affair in Washington had to have Maryland-style terrapin stew."

The buffet was served at midnight — perhaps too late to keep thousands of hungry revelers waiting.

Gambino says, "The buffet table was meant to only serve 300 people at a time, but everyone sort of rushed at once."

The resulting meleé resembled a food fight.

"Men would go over to the buffet table and they'd fill a tray of food to bring back to their dates and their friends. And they'd maybe hoist it above the rest of the crowd... The food just slopped all over the floor and probably over people."

The Washington Evening Star reported at the time: "The floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cake and debris of foul and meat."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And surely, the bubbly was pouring 148 years ago after Abraham Lincoln took his second oath of office. Recently, the Smithsonian did a bit of a document deep dive and came up with the menu for Lincoln's lavish inaugural ball.

MEGAN GAMBINO: There were Oyster stews, roast beef, leg of veal, roast turkey...

LYDEN: That's Megan Gambino. She wrote about the affair for smithsonian.com.

GAMBINO: And lots and lots of dessert - almond sponge cake, macaroon tarts.

LYDEN: The bill of fare, as it's called, provides an exquisite look at how different these presidential balls were just seven score and eight years ago. The food was served buffet style. And as Yale food historian Paul Freedman described it to Megan Gambino, the cuisine could best be described as French via England with some American ingredients.

GAMBINO: Oyster stew and pickled oysters. You wouldn't have found those in France as much.

LYDEN: Because people were catching oysters in the Potomac, so it was easy. And terrapin, too, I understand, turtle stew.

GAMBINO: Exactly. Locavores would be excited about seeing terrapin stew on the menu. Actually, I read in an article from The Washington Post from 1880 that any pretentious affair in Washington had to have Maryland-style terrapin stew.

LYDEN: On March 6, 1865, somewhere between four and 6,000 guests packed into the U.S. Patent Office building, The partygoers arrived around nine. The president and Mrs. Lincoln showed up around 10:30.

GAMBINO: President Lincoln was wearing a black suit and white gloves. Mary Todd Lincoln had this off the shoulder satin white gown. And she had flowers - jasmine and violet - woven in her hair.

LYDEN: A sight to behold, certainly. But soon, the attention turned to the buffet table, which was empty until midnight.

GAMBINO: So they had been dancing for a couple of hours and were probably getting really hungry.

LYDEN: And then midnight struck.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: The decorum of the evening began to degrade rather quickly.

GAMBINO: The buffet table was meant to only serve 300 people at a time, but everyone sort of rushed at once.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GAMBINO: So...

LYDEN: Food fight. I think we call that a food fight.

GAMBINO: Exactly. It wasn't quite a food fight. As far as we know, people weren't tossing food around intentionally. Men would go over to the buffet table, and they'd fill a tray of food to bring back to their dates and their friends. And they'd, you know, maybe hoist it above the rest of the crowd.

And what happened was the food just slopped all over the floor and probably over people. There was actually a really, really interesting quote in the Washington Evening Star: The floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cake and debris of fowl and meat.

LYDEN: Well, here's to hoping President Obama's caterers can take a lesson from one of our forefathers'.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Megan Gambino wrote about Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball for smithsonian.com. And you can see that menu at our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.