A Repast Fit for the Lincolns

Posted January 16, 2009 at 4:12pm

After he takes the oath of office, Barack Obama and a few hundred of his friends, family and colleagues will break bread at the traditional inaugural luncheon in Statuary Hall. They will share a meal that mirrors that of another famed Illinois statesman: President Abraham Lincoln.

Long before Obama won the election, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies chose Lincoln’s bicentennial as the theme for the inaugural lunch. Traditionally food from the president’s and vice president’s home states is served and a special painting is on display. Additionally, there is often a theme. In the past 20 years, many of the themes have centered on bicentennials.

For instance, at George H.W. Bush’s inauguration, the painting on display was Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of President George Washington in recognition of the bicentennial of Washington’s inauguration. In addition, Bush’s New England roots were celebrated with a menu that featured seafood, such as a lobster- scallop ragout. Portraits of Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were featured at President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration in honor of the 200th anniversary of Adams and Jefferson being sworn in as president and vice president.

This, of course, is the year of Lincoln, and the menu will feature foods that the 16th president and his family are known to have enjoyed. Design Cuisine in Arlington, Va., has created a menu that will feature such 19th-century classics as “a brace of American birds (pheasant and duck), served with sour cherry chutney and molasses sweet potatoes,” according to the menu on the inaugural committee’s Web site. An apple cinnamon sponge cake with a sweet cream glace will also be served for dessert. Vegetarians need not worry, though: The caters will also provide vegetarian options.

Design Cuisine Chief Executive Officer Kathy Valentine says her staff spent a lot of time researching the foods of the 1860s and the palate of the former first family by reading books such as “The Lincolns: A Portrait of a Marriage” by Daniel Mark Epstein.

“We did a seafood stew because stews were popular at that time,” she said. Lincoln “liked oysters, however, we wanted something that had seafood that a larger group of people could enjoy.”

To add to the effect, the stew will be served on replicas of the dishes used at Lincoln’s first inauguration.

Valentine and executive chef Shannon Shaffer have the job of serving this old- fashioned meal to 230 people. This is the company’s fifth inaugural luncheon, although it’s Shaffer’s first.

“Fortunately I’m not old enough to have worked on all of them,” he joked. “It’s a great honor to have our food chosen and our company, and it’s just a great feeling.”

In addition to the food that Lincoln loved, the luncheon will also feature the 19th- century landscape painter Thomas Hills’ painting “View of the Yosemite Valley.” The committee says it chose this piece because it symbolizes a new frontier. It is also in recognition of the Yosemite Grant, signed by Lincoln in 1864, which was the first time the federal government set aside park land for preservation and public use.