Published January 16, 2013
Being sworn is as President of the United States works up a big appetite. By the time hands have been laid on bibles, oaths sworn, and speeches given, a president elect could use a good, hot lunch.
That's why every four years soup is always on for the Commander-in-Chief and his guests at the grand National Statuary Hall in the Capitol.
The recently released menu for the 57th Presidential inaugural ceremony’s midday meal and its 225 invitees includes steamed lobster on a bed of wilted spinach drizzled with New England clam chowder sauce to start, and a main dish of hickory grilled bison with a red potato horseradish cake and a sweet and savory reduction of wild huckleberries. Dessert is Hudson Valley-sourced apples baked in a pie with sour cream ice cream, aged local cheeses, and honey-- all put on by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
In terms of ingredients, that includes 225 Maine lobster tails, 300 apples, and three gallons of Duchess County maple syrup, among dozens of other ingredients to be prepped, cooked, and served by team of 80.
It may sound decadent, but its real focus nods directly to Michelle Obama’s interest and advocacy in healthful, locally-minded eating.
“Mrs. Obama’s ideals were very key in putting together the menu,” says Kathy Valentine, CEO of Design Cuisine, the event catering company who has won the honor of crafting the luncheon for the last six presidencies. “Besides being local, it needed to be hearty, but very healthy and light.”
Instead of the usual overabundance of butter in the sauté pan, Valentine’s chefs will use techniques like steaming, and plan to revamp the usually decadent New England clam chowder atop the lobster into a sauce of light broth and just a touch of cream. Also, the bison meat for the main dish is not only an American original, it also happens to be the leanest red meat you can find.
The inaugural lunch tradition dates as far back as 1897, when the Senate Committee on Arrangements hosted it for the 25th president, William McKinley, at the U.S. Capitol. But before that the traditional inaugural meal was a bit hit or miss. George Washington and John Adams, after taking their oaths of office, had dinner by themselves. In contrast, after Andrew Jackson was sworn in, a mob of rowdy well-wishers looking for ice cream, cake and lemonade nearly trashed the White House, while James Buchanan had 5,000 guests that feasted on beef, hams, mutton, and hundreds gallons of oysters.
The present-day tradition of holding it in the grand, marbled Statuary Hall began in 1953, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower, his wife, and 50 hungry guests were treated by the JCCIC to creamed chicken, baked ham, and potato puffs, among other delights.
How is the menu for such an auspicious occasion decided upon? “It starts with a theme, and the theme comes from the committee,” says Valentine. “This year’s theme is Faith in America’s Future, and with that [the JCCIC] wanted to focus on foods from across the country and local farms, as well as the home states of the different committee members.”
Other themes have included a nod to president’s past, like four years ago when the JCCIC decided to commemorate the 200th anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth the focal point of the day. For that meal, Valentine’s company dutifully researched ingredients and dishes that might have been served in old Abe’s time, like roasted American game birds and seafood stew with corn and a touch of the fortified wine, Madeira, which had been quite popular in the early years of the nation. They also managed to find a replica a plate used during the Lincoln presidency upon which to serve it all.
Making the inaugural lunch requires not just research, but months of multiple test meals for the JCCIC, and the ability to switch out dishes and ingredients on the day of for attendees with particular food aversions or allergies. Valentine and her crew must go through vigorous background checks and security clearances, too.
“Let’s just say several of us were downtown yesterday getting our credentials and security clearances. It’s a process, but it’s important – we understand that,” she says. “But quite honestly, it’s such an honor to be part of it. We get to the Capitol when it’s still dark out. When the sun comes up and you’re looking at all people out there, you can’t help but think, ‘Wow!’ It’s extremely exciting.”