All the President’s Tables: James A. Garfield’s Inaugural Reception Menu

President James A. Garfield

On March 4, 1881, people lucky enough or well-placed enough or ambitious enough entered through the doors of what is now the Smithsonian’s Castle, in Judiciary Square, to celebrate the inauguration of President James A. Garfield, the last of the U.S. presidents born and raised in a log cabin. A contemporary account states that:

The reception and ball to celebrate the inauguration of President James Abram Garfield is held in the as yet unfinished National Museum building. The Board of Regents authorized use of the building with the stipulation that no precedent is to be given for the use of the building for other purposes. Under the direction of a citizens’ committee, a temporary wooden floor is laid in each of the ground-level rooms, ten thousand bins for hats, coats, and wraps are erected, and some three thousand gas burners are introduced. For the occasion, two electric lights are suspended in the rotunda and several are erected outside along with calcium lights in different parts of the grounds.

Garfield Inauguration

According to a journalist of the times, Ben Perley Poore, the seven thousand attendees ate and ate, over 100 gallons of oysters, 1500 pounds of turkey, 50 hams, 200 gallons of chicken salad, 700 loaves of bread, 2000 biscuits, 1000 rolls, 15000 cakes, 150 gallons of ice cream, 50 gallons of ices, and 250 gallons of coffee. But they didn’t drink a drop of “firewater,” out of deference to “Lemonade Lucy” Hayes, the Temperance-inclined wife of outgoing president, Rutherford B. Hayes, As Ken Ringle said about Bush 43’s second inaugural in his 2005 article titled “Inaugural Meals and the National Mood,” “… the nourishment dispensed at presidential inaugurations should tell us something about ourselves as a nation during the era in question.”

Plans for the Inauguration, of course, began soon after the election in November and contemporary documents reveal the intricate ideas of the planners:

The court of the building, which is two hundred and eighty feet long by one hundred and thirty wide, will be magnificently decorated in white and gold …. A canopy, in three sections, will extend over the court, and long streamers of white and gold will be suspended in every direction. The capitals will be massed with shields bearing coats-of-arms, flags of all nations, and trailing maiden-hair fern. The coats-of-arms of the States will be placed on the fronts of the balconies, in the centre of the court will be a grand golden gate, consisting of a series of arches. The [floor] decorations will be on a scale of beauty never before attempted, and the electrical illuminations will be wonderful in their brilliant effects. The Presidential suite and Committee Room will be on second floor, and the promenade of the Presidential party will be down the western stairway, passing the gate to the ball-room, and thence to the supper-rooms, in the northeast corner of the building. The promenade music will be furnished by Gilmore’s Band, and the dancing music by Haley’s Orchestra. Every one not attending the ball should go to one of the concerts. […]

The price of ball tickets are $5.00 for each person, and can be obtained at the Pension Building, National Banks, Trust Companies, and hotels. The souvenir invitation to the Ball, presented with each ticket, is an exquisite work of the engraver’s and lithographer’s art. The supper tickets are $1.00 each and the concert tickets 50 cents. Complete arrangements have been made for a perfect system of calling carriages and for the safe checking of hats, wraps, etc.

First Lady Lucretia Garfield

First Lady Lucretia Garfield, known to intimates as “Crete,” almost died of malaria while the Garfields lived in the White House, but she planned to remodel and redecorate the old house in the style of earlier years. Today, she might be an advocate for the SLOW food movement, as she preferred unadulterated and fresh food, just as numerous others did in the late nineteenth century, like John Harvey Kellogg and Charles William Post.

While Crete might not have planned the food served to the hordes that day, and most likely Garfield’s steward had a hand in the creation, nevertheless the menu reads as follows:

Pickled Oysters

Chicken Salad

Roast Turkey    Roast Hams    Roast Beef

Spiced Tongue

Fruits and Relishes

Breads    Jelly    Rolls

Ice Cream    Ices

Assorted Cakes

Tea    Lemonade    Coffee

Instead of the hard cider so beloved of former presidents Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, lemonade flowed, of course, in honor of Lucy Hayes. This state of affairs deviated greatly from past inaugurals where free drink caused rowdiness and worse. So people listened to the music of the U.S. Marine Band, conducted by the famed John Philip Sousa while they swilled the tameness of the lemonade and basked in the activity swirling around them.

The White House Cook Book (1887)

Just in case you like oysters, not just a little bit, but A LOT, try this recipe from The White House Cook Book: Cooking, Toilet [sic], and Household Recipes …,  by Mrs. F. L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann, steward of the White House (1887). Be forewarned that The White House Cook Book contains very little information about the White House per se, although it does feature portraits of the First Ladies. The recipes appear to reflect the surprisingly sophisticated cuisine of the day, or at least what people wanted to think was the cuisine of the times.

[Makes 1 gallon]

One gallon of oysters; wash them well in their own liquor; carefully clear away the particles of shell, then put them into a kettle, strain the liquor over them, add salt to your taste, let them just come to the boiling point, or until the edges curl up; then skim them out and lay in a dish to cool; put a sprig of mace and a little cold pepper and allow the liquor to boil some time, skimming it now and then so long as any scum rises. Pour it into a pan and let it cool. When perfectly cool, add a half pint of strong vinegar, place the oysters in a jar and pour the liquor over them.

White House Kitchen, Nineteenth Century


Eleanor Roosevelt could have used this recipe, or rather her housekeeper/cook Harriet Nesbitt did, at FDR’s 1944 inaugural luncheon. Toastmaster George Jessel commented in his speech at that luncheon, “Mrs. Roosevelt, how did you manage to make chicken salad with so much celery and so little chicken?” Seems like WAY too much celery, but if chickens were scarce, well, it’s a way to pump up the dish, even if the chickens aren’t plump and pleasing.

Boil the fowls tender and remove all the fat, gristle and skin; mince the meat in small pieces, but do not hash it. To one chicken put twice and a half its weight in celery, cut in pieces of about one-quarter of an inch; mix thoroughly and set it in a cool place–the ice chest.

In the meantime prepare a “Mayonnaise dressing,” and when ready for the table pour this dressing over the chicken and celery, tossing and mixing it thoroughly. Set it in a cool place until ready to serve. Garnish with celery tips, or cold hard-boiled eggs, lettuce leaves, from the heart, cold boiled beets or capers, olives.

Crisp cabbage is a good substitute for celery; when celery is not to be had use celery vinegar in the dressing. Turkey makes a fine salad.

Read more about Garfield at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, run by the U.S. Park Service.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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