• U.S.

Taking a Taste of Power

5 minute read
Mimi Sheraton


Sensitive to accusations of unseemly opulence in menus for the 1981 Inauguration parties, committee heads, party bigwigs and savvy hostesses this time took vows of simplicity. “The word was out from the Inaugural committee that this is a people’s Inauguration,” said Dane Towell of Glorious Food, a catering firm based in New York City and Washington. “We were told to avoid too many obvious luxuries.”

Simplicity, however, is in the eye of the beholder. As interpreted on Inaugural menus, it meant everything from chili to caviar, with plenty of pot pie, seafood mousse and exotic wild mushrooms in between. The selections reflected those of stylish restaurants around the country. Caterers proudly described their offerings as light, pretty, fresh, American and, above all, Californian. Almost conspiratorially, they whispered of such unsimple fare as French truffles, Caspian caviar and roe-trimmed scallops from Holland.

Scallops of all sorts were on so many menus, in fact, that those mollusks soon may show up on the endangered-species list. Pasta was much favored, least surprisingly for a dinner given by Ambassador and Mrs. Rinaldo Petrignani, who served penne with smoked salmon to such Reagan buddies as the Walter Annenbergs, the Frank Sinatras, the Charles Wicks, Attorney General and Mrs. William French Smith and the Ed Meeses. Many of the same guests were expected to partake of pasta shells alla carbonara at a White House luncheon for 150 following the Sunday swearing-in ceremony. Pasta primavera was planned for the same crowd at a midnight supper at the Ritz Carlton Hotel after Monday’s Inaugural balls.

Little vegetables were big with caterers, most especially Persianettes, tiny, red, pear-shaped tomatoes that may become the garnish of the year. Veal surpassed beef as the most popular entree selection, but the old American stand-by was to appear in a few new guises. Filet mignon stuffed with lobster, a classy variation on surf and turf, was created by Columbia Catering for several clients. The most intricate beef invention was presented at the birthday party for Carolyn Deaver, wife of outgoing Presidential Aide Michael Deaver, who is the Administration’s gastronome-in-residence. Served in the Glorious Cafe in Georgetown, the roti de trois betes–roast of three “beasts”–had beef as its core, surrounded by veal, in turn ringed with boneless duck. Downed by the flu, Deaver missed the party. “He couldn’t even bear to watch a peanut butter commercial on TV,” his wife said.

Louisiana fare was chosen to celebrate the Sun King exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery. Shell Oil, sponsor of both the exhibit and the dinner, hired Paul Prudhomme, the famed Cajun chef at the New Orleans restaurant K- Paul’s, to prepare 29 dishes for 500 to 700 guests. The National Gallery ordered regional American dishes from Design Cuisine, a Washington caterer, to mark its exhibition of American paintings lent for the Inauguration by Armand Hammer, the millionaire industrialist. Some 250 guests were expected to sample Wisconsin veal, Puget Sound salmon, New England cranberries and beaten biscuits.

A more private, down-home dinner was planned for 14 guests, the family and friends of Ronald Lauder, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and son of makeup Magnate Estee Lauder. “Stars,” as in the American flag, were the party theme. The just-plain-folks appetizer was smoked salmon with Oregon caviar on star-shaped toast. Pastry stars studded the crust of the beef-and- vegetable pot pie, and the strawberry-blueberry dessert came with stellar sugar cookies.

The high point of the eating marathon figured to be the official Inaugural luncheon after Monday’s swearing-in. Planned for the Statuary Hall of the Capitol, the luncheon was organized by Senator Charles Mathias and his wife Ann. The contract for the luncheon was awarded to Glorious Food after a caloric competition with two other Washington caterers, Ridgewells and Columbia, that also have State Department clearance. Each was asked to prepare and serve a sample luncheon to the Senator, his wife, their son and several gourmet friends who volunteered as judges. Said Dane Towell: “We actually did two meals–two appetizers, main courses and desserts. They ate the whole thing.”

* The winning menu began with a “simple” mousse of sole with a sauce of lobster, shrimp and truffles. Veal medaillons with morels followed, and finally there was to be a cold praline souffle. Decorations were designed by John Funt of Tiffany and Chris Giftos of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and included cerise tablecloths and centerpieces of anemones and lilies. The estimated cost to the taxpayers was $60 for each of the 222 guests.

Less tony palates were not forgotten. Ticketron sold thousands of $9.50 tickets to A Taste of America, an eat-all-you-want feed at the Washington Convention Center, featuring a few specialties from each of 42 restaurants. The Inaugural committee, in an effort to defray costs, included among its souvenirs an $8 package labeled Inaugural Nibbles, a mix of nuts and dried fruit that is the official space snack of NASA’s astronauts.

Democrats who felt left out could fork over $25 to join the Other Inaugural, sponsored by Americans for Democratic Action at the Wax Museum. Catered by the firm belonging to Mark May, the Redskin tackle, the meal was planned around chili, cornbread and a dessert named Hog Heaven Delight, in honor of May and the other behemoths on Washington’s offensive line. The team colors, burgundy and gold, inspired the dessert selection of raspberry sherbet in a cookie crust. Democratic pols signed on as bartenders. They could at least help the party drown its troubles while the Republicans tasted four more years of power.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com