An Inaugural Memory: President Lincoln's Food Fight The Smithsonian recently uncovered the menu from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball, and it provides an interesting look at how different the celebrations were just 148 years ago.

An Inaugural Memory: President Lincoln's Food Fight

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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

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.


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.



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'.


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


LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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