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The Inaugural Ball Food Fight Of 1865

We always thought inaugural balls were elegant affairs until we read The Smithsonian’s account of how the celebration for President Abraham Lincoln’s second term descended into a gloriously messy food fight. Some 4,000 guests, who had gathered in Washington on the evening of March 6, 1865, stormed the 250ft long buffet table when the food was revealed at midnight. Piled high with oysters, roast beef, veal, turkey, venison, smoked ham, lobster salad and a huge array of desserts and sweets, the hungry guests attacked the food, with chaotic results. Newspapers that were published the following day noted the ill-mannered behavior of the guests.

“In less than an hour the table was a wreck…positively frightful to behold,” wrote the New York Times. Men hoisted full trays above the masses and took them back to their friends, slopping stews and jellies along the way. “The floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cake, and debris of fowl and meat,” reported the Washington Evening Star.

Illustration from Illustrated London News, April 8, 1865. (National Portrait Gallery / Smithsonian Institution) 

Food historian Paul Freedman of Yale University, who has studied thousands of menus from the 19th century, gives fascinating insights into the food that was offered. He notes that 19th century food was highly influenced by the French restaurant culture that was spreading throughout the rest of the world and that The White House got some of the French spellings wrong – they wrote patetes instead of pates. There were also English-influenced dishes although some offers such as pickled oysters were distinctly American, You can read his full analysis of the menu here. The caterer of the feast was G A Balzer, a confectioner in Washington. We looked him up and discovered that his great grandson Robert Lawrence Balzer wrote a wine column for the Los Angeles Times for 30 years. Moreover, both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush appointed Balzer as chairman of food and wine for their own inaugural celebrations. 

The parties marking the 57th presidential swearing-in due to be held this weekend in Washington, are obviously not going to be such unruly affairs. Still, it's good to know our forebears knew how to party.