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3 Presidential Inauguration Luncheon Menus: Then and Now

At America’s Test Kitchen, we’re all about the food. Here we present our versions of three recent Inaugural Luncheons, served with a sprinkling of food history.

Published Jan. 19, 2017.

As is the case with many historical traditions, food has played a role in Presidential Inaugurations since the very first presidential election. Since then, our freshly sworn-in leaders have celebrated their big day with a meal. While once it was customary to throw a dinner party, today it’s tradition for Congress to host what is known as the Inaugural Luncheon.

The Inaugural Luncheon is a tradition that dates back to 1897, when the Senate Committee on Arrangements hosted a party at the U.S. Capitol for President William McKinley and his guests. And while the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has been planning the luncheon since 1901, it did not exist in its current form until the 1953 inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s inaugural luncheon menu included, among other dishes, creamed chicken (it was the 1950s after all) and potato puffs.

Before 1897, newly inaugurated Presidents of the United States of America would celebrate their good fortunes with dinner. Some of these meals were humble—George Washington is rumored to have eaten alone—while others were more raucous—legend has it that Lincoln’s inaugural feast devolved into something resembling a food fight.

Since here at America’s Test Kitchen we’re all about the food, we decided to recognize one of the nation’s most important days by taking a look at a few (relatively) recent Inaugural Luncheon menus and piecing together our own versions. Take a look below!

Ronald Reagan: January 20th, 1981

Reagan’s first inaugural luncheon consisted of three courses: a California Garden Salad (appropriate—the former actor spent much of his adult life in, and eventually governed, California); Medallions of Chicken Piquante served with Rice Pilaf, and Fresh Asparagus served with Lemon Vinaigrette; and, finally, Strawberry Framboise.

Our version of Reagan’s luncheon menu: We start things off with a Leafy Green Salad, and follow it up with the slightly spicy (but not too spicy) Chicken Mole Poblano. We finish our version of Reagan’s menu with a rich and creamy Fresh Strawberry Mousse.

Bill Clinton: January 20th, 1993

Clinton’s first inaugural luncheon began with Grilled Salmon topped with Sorrel Sauce, which was followed by a second course of Rosemary Chicken served with Pecan Rice, Ginger Baby Carrots, and Broccoli Flowerets. Dessert was an Apple-Cranberry Brown Betty with Creme Anglaise.

Our version of Clinton’s luncheon menu: We begin our meal with Slow-Cooker Poached Salmon with Caper Relish, followed by Cast Iron Crisp Roast Butterflied Chicken with Rosemary and Garlic. For dessert, we’re serving up a humble—but delicious—Deep-Dish Apple Pie.

Barack Obama: January 20th, 2009

The menu for Obama’s first inaugural luncheon is the one that makes our mouths water most: a first course of Fish Stew was followed by a Brace of American Birds (duck breast and herb-roasted pheasant, to be exact) served with Sour Cherry Chutney and Molasses Sweet Potatoes. Dessert was an Apple Cinnamon Sponge Cake topped with a Sweet Cream Glacé. Yum.

Our version of Obama’s luncheon menu: We kick things off with an Italian-American favorite: Cioppino. Because we don’t have a recipe for “Brace of American Birds served with Sour Cherry Chutney and Molasses Sweet Potatoes,” we’re serving Herb-Roasted Cornish Game Hens with a side of Duck Fat-Roasted Potatoes as our second course. And for dessert, we’re serving an elegant, old-world take on sponge cake: the impressive Raspberry Charlotte.

If it were up to you, what would you serve at an inaugural luncheon? Let us know in the comments!

[Feature photo credit: Architect of the Capitol photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Reproduction number LC-USZC4-7720]

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