Sure, Inauguration Day is important for what is said: the unforgettable lines that historians will seize upon as having set the tone of a presidency ("Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country").
Inauguration Day is also important for what is done but not said: the symbolism that signals a break with the previous administration (trudging along the inaugural parade route, instead of gliding in a toasty-warm limousine).But Barbara Kuck maintains that what matters on Inauguration Day is what is eaten. She knows, for example, that George Washington had lunch alone after he took the oath of office. That Abraham Lincoln pocketed a handful of pastries for his son Robert. That Calvin Coolidge had pickles at breakfast that day. And that some inaugurations were free-for-alls, with overturned tables, spilled trays and broken glassware.
Kuck is director of the Culinary Archives and Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. Its enormous collection (half a million items, from menus to stoves) includes perhaps the only collection of food-related presidential memorabilia in the country. Tucked away on the shelves of a drafty warehouse-style building are presidential menus and letters signed by chief executives from George Washington to Bill Clinton.
Not to mention cookbooks containing presidential recipes. These are old recipes, dietetically if not politically incorrect, heavy on whole milk, cream and butter. Only in Washington could a low-calorie food like oysters be the main ingredient in an 800-plus-calorie stew. This may explain the Washington approach to problems like the deficit.
Also at the museum is a trove of culinary-history books that yield facts not usually mentioned in civics classes: Thomas Jefferson's cook gave notice after seeing the kitchen at the White House. James Monroe worried about "garlick" in his wheat. The all-but-forgotten administration of James K. Polk began with a 4-foot-high cake adorned with a flag for each state and territory. When President Calvin Coolidge was not at his desk, he was often found having a snack in a storeroom where pickles, jellies and jams were kept.
The documents in the culinary museum show how involved some presidents were in the day-to-day operation of the White House kitchen - Jefferson did his own grocery shopping, sometimes spending $50 for a week's worth of food, an enormous amount for early-19th-century Washington. But in food, as in politics, presidents did not always get what they wanted. Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted a buffet luncheon with hot chicken a la king on Inauguration Day in 1933. He got cold chicken salad and butterless rolls instead.
More often, presidents were treated to elaborate, coronation-like feasts. Kuck pointed out that the elaborate menus were no small accomplishment in the 1800s, when the United States was an upstart nation trying to impress diplomats from countries with great culinary traditions like France.
The wine for James Buchanan's inaugural celebration in 1857 cost $3,000, an enormous sum for the time. The guests were served 400 gallons of oysters, 500 quarts of chicken salad, 500 quarts of jellies, 1,200 quarts of ice cream, 8 rounds of beef, 75 hams, 60 saddles of mutton and 4 of venison.
The bill of fare at James A. Garfield's inauguration in 1881 was no less impressive: 15,000 "assorted cakes," 3,000 rolls, 350 loaves of bread, 100 gallons of pickled oysters and 250 gallons of coffee.
The culinary archives were started in 1989, when Kuck's father, Louis Szathmary, a Chicago chef, began donating his collection of food-related historical autographs to Johnson & Wales. "Everybody else wanted the weightier political documents, the treaties," Kuck said of her father's collection. "The food-related ones were relatively inexpensive. He could afford them. Then once dealers found out, they offered him things that didn't come up for auction.
That was how he acquired the menu from Lincoln's second inaugural ball in 1865. The ink is brownish, the paper hard and shiny. Lincoln's name does not appear on the menu, but the caterer's name and address are at the bottom.
Kuck let Clinton hold the Lincoln menu when she was introduced to him after a 1996 presidential town meeting, which was televised from a local studio. "It's a high-stress job," she said. "You have to figure there's not too much he can do that's really fun, and maybe he'd get a kick out of actually touching a real piece of history."
And there are the pieces of history her family has touched, live and in person: Szathmary, who died in 1996 at 77, was invited to cook for one of the parties after Ronald Reagan's second inauguration in 1985.
The roast pork stuffed with Hungarian sausage was coming along fine when a bomb threat was received. The caterers were ordered out - and told to leave the food where it was. A bomb-sniffing dog scoured the dining room. "Missy, the bomb dog, wolfed down the steak tartare," which another chef was preparing, said Kuck, who was helping her father, "and we never got to see the president."
Then there was the time her father was working to finish a catered dinner when a man wandered into the kitchen and asked for a glass of water. Szathmary told the man to wait. The man said he had been the president.
"You president? Me pope," Szathmary said, shooing former President Harry S. Truman away.
As for presidential documents, the museum has everything from Dwight D. Eisenhower's beef stew recipe - he found cooking relaxing - to a want ad by George Washington. "A cook is wanted for the family of the president of the United States," it said. "No one need apply who is not perfect in the business, and can bring indubitable testimonials of sobriety, honesty and attention to the duties of the station."
Washington eventually hired Samuel Fraunces, a Manhattan tavern owner who cooked for the general when his troops were stationed in New York during the Revolution. "He was not only an excellent cook, but knew how to organize elegant dinners," Kuck said.
Washington is said to have preferred fish to meat, perhaps because of his teeth or, more accurately, his lack of them: he was toothless by his 1789 swearing in, and he favored soft food because of ill-fitting dentures. (Kuck said that Washington's dentures were not wooden, and the problem was a dental device from a silversmith that made smiling painful.)
On Inauguration Day in 1789, Washington was escorted to his house on Cherry Street in lower Manhattan, where a ramp now carries Brooklyn Bridge traffic, and was left alone.
"It was probably a very informal thing," said King Laughlin, an associate curator at Mount Vernon, Washington's estate near Alexandria, Va. "Most of the fanfare around the inauguration was going to take place that night. People had to go out and prepare for that."
If only things had been so civilized in the 19th century. Andrew Jackson's presidency began with an inaugural reception that one historian called "a brawl." The guests swarmed around the waiters, spilling chicken on the carpets and breaking china and glassware. Jackson escaped through a back door and fled to a hotel.
A disaster? Hardly. "It was a proud day for the people," Amos Kendall, an editor from Kentucky, declared at the time.
The centerpiece of Lincoln's first inaugural dinner, in 1861, was a spun-sugar model of the Capitol. "The menu was a gastronomic triumph," Louise Durbin reported in "Inaugural Cavalcade" (Dodd, Mead & Co., 1971), but once again rowdy guests were a problem. "Some were seen snatching whole pates, chickens and legs of veal and carrying them, above the heads of the cringing crowd, away for private consumption," she wrote.
And who is Kuck's favorite president? Millard Fillmore, who served from 1850 to 1853. The first stove was installed during his administration; until then cooking in the White House had been done on the hearth in the kitchen. The stove was delivered without instructions, and Fillmore's cook had no idea how to work the new contraption.
Fillmore, Kuck said, walked to the Patent Office, read the patent application that the stove's manufacturer had filed, and then showed the cook how to fire it up.
"This would not happen in today's day and age," Kuck said. "You've got to love him."