The Presidential palette has come a long way since the first Inaugural repast, which took place during the start of the Eisenhower presidency in 1953. Back then, creamed chicken, watermelon pickles, olives, radishes and tomato juice and petits fours were among the dishes that graced tables.
The offerings at President Barack Obama’s Inaugural luncheon in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall were decidedly more complex than those at the first luncheon, but they also were in-line with the new commander-in-chief’s goal of getting the economy back on track; some of the wine selections retail for less than $30 a bottle.
The food and drink at the dinner were inspired by the tastes of Abraham Lincoln. Throughout his campaign, Obama cited connections to his fellow Illinoisan, and it is customary to draw inspiration from the incoming president’s home state.
D.C.-based Design Cuisine CEO Kathy Valentine and her staff pored over history books to learn a bit about Number 16’s tastes before setting out to produce dishes befitting Number 44. Her team, consisting of head chef Shannon Shaffer, about 70 other chefs, assistants and wait staff, toiled diligently in the kitchen to serve three courses to nearly 230 people. Guests included senior members of the Senate and House of Representatives, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet members and former Presidents.
She began with a Seafood Stew served in puff pastry rounds—a nod to Lincoln’s penchant for oysters and other seafood as he matured. She told me she also hoped the warm dish would help thaw guests who had spent the past several hours in D.C.’s freezing January weather.
Mr. Lincoln’s fondness for game birds appeared in the next course of Duck Breast in Cherry Chutney and Herb-Roasted Pheasant with Wild Rice Stuffing, served with Molasses Sweet Potatoes. The meal ended with a simple, universally pleasing dessert made with Lincoln’s favorite humble fruit, the apple—Apple Cinnamon Sponge Cake and Sweet Cream Glacé.
As for wine, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which tasted a host of offerings before deciding on a favorite, went with Duckhorn Wine Company for the first and second courses.
Duckhorn executive winemaker Bill Nancarrow did not get to taste the pairings, but he did tell me that the 2007 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which retails for $27, is riper and weightier than the racy New Zealand style that stems from partial barrel fermentation. He believes that the more mouth-filling quality and looser acidity of the Duckhorn sauvignon blanc would match nicely with the richness of the heavy cream-based Seafood Stew.
The 2005 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, $55 a bottle and also served at the luncheons, Nancarrow considers one of the winery’s best wines. “It captures all the intrigue of a great pinot—a velvety texture and a wonderful myriad of flavors and aromas ranging from pure fruit character to earthiness and hints of wild game,” he said.
Pinot is a natural match for duck, and also would pair well with the cherry chutney on the side. Nancarrow also points out that wine with time in a barrel can develop toasty molasses notes, ideal for the Molasses Sweet Potatoes.
Guests have raised flutes of Korbel on Inauguration Day since the Reagan administration. Although Francophiles may object to the company’s use of the word “Champagne” to describe their sparkling offerings, Korbel is the number one selling premium méthode champenoise-produced sparkling wine in America. This year’s Korbel’s Natural Special Inaugural Cuvée featured a commemorative neck label with the Inaugural seal. The retail version of the wine, Korbel Natural, runs for $15 a bottle.
Korbe owner Gary Heck told me the cuvée is a blend of 80 percent pinot noir and 20 percent chardonnay, all from the Russian River Valley and laid down several years ago. The Inaugural committee ordered 15 to 18 cases of magnums to sip with dessert and for consumption during the traditional toasts. Heck describes Korbel Natural as dry with very little dosage, yet fruit-forward and extremely versatile. “I’m truly honored to be a part of this momentous occasion,” he says. “It’s a thrill to have once again been selected.”
President Obama’s food and beverage choices were well received by guests, and the luncheon section of the Inaugural web site was the most frequently viewed page on the site. Former President Clinton and newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even stopped by the kitchen after the luncheon to compliment Chef Shaffer and the staff—a huge compliment from a power couple with a proclivity for entertaining.
Not a bad start for a president with a penchant for food and a personal wine cellar rumored to exceed 1,000 bottles.