All the Presidents’ Tables: James Buchanan’s Inaugural Extravanganza

Named the worst of all U.S. presidents, James Buchanan — ironically boasting the most government-related domestic and foreign experience of any president prior to taking office — lived as a bachelor all his life.

Harriet Lane
Harriet Lane

His niece (and ward) Harriet Lane became his White House hostess. She’d been with Buchanan in London when he served as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James and subsequently absorbed a good many ideas about formal entertaining. She waited until she turned 35 to marry.

In a 1997 article by James Barron in The New York Times, Barbara Kuck, the daughter of Louis Szathmary the famous culinary ephemera collector and chef, indicated that the wine alone cost $3000 for Buchanan’s 1857 inaugural celebration, equivalent to about $60,000 in today’s money, an astronomical amount when few people made more than $250 a year, if that. Five thousand guests devoured 400 gallons of oysters, 500 quarts of chicken salad, 500 quarts of jellies, 1200 quarts of ice cream in assorted flavors, 8 rounds of beef, 75 hams, 60 saddles of mutton, and 4 saddles of venison. (Note: More text follows the illustration.)

Buchanan Inaugural Planning List
Buchanan Inaugural Planning List

This costly menu appears very simple, but the logistics of preparing such quantities of food must have been prohibitive. Buchanan’s two stewards — Louis Burgdorf and Richard Goodchild — and his housekeeper, Esther (“Miss Hetty”) Parker, kept everything running smoothly. Buchanan hired a French caterer and chocolatier named Charles Gautier to handle the provisioning and preparation of the banquet, thus bringing back a European touch to the White House. And a very celebratory ambiance as well.

Buchanan's Inauguration
Buchanan Inaugural Photo

Buchanan’s inaugural benefited from the new technology of photography; his was the first to be photographed for posterity. Unfortunately, the celebratory mood of inaugural day soon waned and Buchanan stood by as the Dred Scott case essentially allowed the spread of slavery and as the southern states began their secessionist plans.

In other words, Buchanan’s actions, or inaction, left a mess for the next president — Abraham Lincoln — and led to the Civil War.

President James Buchanan’s Inaugural Ball Reception

March 4, 1857

Oysters

Saddle of Mutton

Saddle of Venison (Used with permission.)
Saddle of Venison (Used with permission.)

Saddle of Venison

Sliced Beef Tongue

Sliced Ham

Chicken Salad

Biscuits and Rolls

Ice Cream

Cake

Wine

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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