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A Tradition of Banquets That Have Featured the Opulent and the Bizarre

January 18, 1985|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER | The author, who writes Balzer on Wine for Home magazine, is a syndicated wine and food writer. and

WASHINGTON — It all began in 1789 when George Washington was escorted from his living quarters in New York to Federal Hall on Wall Street by a "joint committee of Congress," composed of eight men, followed by politicians, military figures, national noteworthies and assorted hangers-on.

Ever since, the Presidential Inaugural has become a tapestry of bizarre happenings, edged with tragedy. William Henry Harrison delivered a two-hour speech in a freezing northeast wind, bareheaded, and died in less than a month when the cold he caught developed into pneumonia.

Dolley Madison created the first Inaugural Ball in 1809. Twenty years later, for the Inaugural of Andrew Jackson, literally thousands of guests caked with mud from a great downpour proceeded to the Executive Mansion, where they broke furniture, shattered glass, overturned tables and ruined rugs, behaving, as one observer wrote, "like an invasion of Mongolian herds, crude, rude and barbaric, not to mention inebriated, too."

In 1861, with America nearing the Civil War, balls were featured during Inaugural Week. Lincoln's second Inaugural on March 6, 1865, coming as it did near the end of the war, is graced in his famous speech: " . . . with malice toward none; with charity for all."

The "Bill of Fare of the Presidential Inaugural Ball" did not include Lincoln's name. But very clearly, at the bottom of the menu, was the name of my great-grandfather. It reads: "Furnished by G.A. BALZER, Confectioner, Cor. 9th & D Sts., Washington, D.C." Shrewd fellow. This affair was well chronicled in "The President's Wife" by Ishbel Ross:

"The banquet ordered for the Ball was not on the magnificent scale of four years earlier. Too much hardship, deprivation and suffering had intervened, but Balzer, the confectioner, provided some spun-sugar conceits, involving frigates and forts, admiral's hats and ironclads. Tables holding 300 at a sitting were lavishly stocked with beef, veal, game, poultry, smoked meats, oysters, terrapins, salads, jellies, ices, tarts, cakes, fruits, nuts, coffee and chocolate. A sugar model of the Capitol . . . was much admired until it began to dissolve on its pedestal in the shambles that ensued.

"Instead of going to the tables in sequence, the crowd literally charged at the refreshments, wolfing down food, carrying off legs of lamb to be eaten in alcoves, nibbling at the sugar horse and throwing the admiral's hat in the air. The ship of state vanished inch by inch but the Capitol held its own. Glasses were smashed. The marble floor was littered with pulp and debris. The hilarity grew as the night wore on, and some of the inebriates lay down to sleep it off. Laces and silks were torn in the free-for-all and Mild Norah Brooks, who wrote that the Ball was a handsome affair, added that its 'beauty was marred by the extraordinary rush of hungry people, who fairly mobbed the supper tables and enacted a scene of confusion whose wildness was similar to some of the antics of the Paris commune.' "

The ghost of my paternal great-grandfather hovered around during my first experience with presidential Inaugurals when I served as chairman of the wine selections for "A Taste of America" at the first Reagan Inaugural. Now I'm one up on my good ancestor, serving as chairman of the food and wine selections again for this Inaugural's only full-scale wine and food event. This time around, with definite retrenchment from the elaborations of the first Inaugural, there will be no candlelight dinner but there will be the usual bejeweled balls, which are not dining but dancing affairs, and, as ever, will be jam-packed with stalwarts.

Nothing has changed since Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 inauguration when one journalist wrote: "To the thousands all over the country who read accounts of the Inaugural Balls in their home paper, many with heart burnings and envy of those who could and did attend, I would say: 'Don't. It is not worth it.' It is a most public affair, which anyone who can pay the price of entrance may attend. You may be dressed to be seen and to see and accomplish neither because of the great crush. Dancing is almost impossible." I was there in 1981 and that's the way it was . . . but fun.

This year, "A Taste of America" will be held in the new Washington Convention Center. Guests will enter through a replica of the White House portals, moving to a foyer where students of a culinary academy will present a reproduction of the Capitol (as at Lincoln's second Inaugural) in the form of a great cake, with a glistening dome of white marzipan, eight feet tall.

In this great hall, 30 American wineries will pair two of their finest wines, to match finger-portion foods from 50 of the country's award-winning restaurants, for upward of 12,000 invited guests during the three days before the Monday Inaugural.

Anthony Athanas of Pier 4 in Boston will be serving Cape Cod Oysters on the half shell as the neighboring booth pours Great Western New York Champagne. The savory goodness of the world's best Risotto Verde, from Tre Scalini of Manhattan, will make harmony with Jekel Vineyards prize-winning Cabernet Sauvignon. Harrah's of Reno will draw equal raves for their Brie en Croute, to enjoy with Jordan Chardonnay or Erdman-Tedeschi Blanc de Noir from the slopes of Haleakala on Maui. Ted Brennan is coming from New Orleans to present that Brennan's original creation, Bananas Foster.

All of the above comes with the most enthusiastic good wishes of the wineries and restaurants, as a gift for the Reagan Inaugural.

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