Feasting in State: Obama’s First Real State Dinner

President and Mrs. Obama at Governors' Dinner, February 2009 (Reuters)

In the next week, we will see real-time examples of a few of the different types of feasts common to American culture: Thanksgiving — essentially a harvest feast tinged with overtones of cultural identity — and President Barack Obama’s first true State Dinner, to be held on November 24, 2009 for India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — a feast based on the display of power and good will. Both feasts carry with them great tradition and historical precedent.

Having covered the American Thanksgiving feast in past posts (HERE, HERE, and HERE), I think a look at the State Dinner, and its role in American politics, might prove somewhat edifying.

From the beginning of the young American republic, State Dinners served the purpose of identifying political allies and providing those allies with a glimpse of American intentions. Like any sovereigns in the past, American presidents used (and still use) the bounty of their tables to win friends and awe enemies.

State Dining Room, 1850

State Dinners these days tend to be given for visiting heads of state, but the term “State Dinner” could also mean simply a lavish affair honoring special guests like members of the president’s cabinet or Congress, especially during the nineteenth century. The first State Dinner took place in May 1789, according to Good Housekeeping Magazine, no. 10:

This paper will be accompanied by one describing the White House State Dinners, the Code of Etiquette established on the occasion of the first State Dinner, which was given by President Washington, in May, 1789, in honor of the arrival of Mrs. Washington in New York, having been continuously adhered to by all the succeeding presidents, except in the exigencies of war, or other circumstances which prevented its adoption. This Code of Etiquette is carefully described, as are also the Cards of Invitation sent out and the Menu prepared for the first State Dinner of President and Mrs. Harrison, together with the precedent methods of Seating the Guests, Table Service and the After-Dinner Accomplishments. This paper is prepared by Mrs. L. B. Stelle of the Washington Woman’s Press Association.

President Andrew Johnson

When President Andrew Johnson gave a State Dinner, events transpired in a way much unlike present-day affairs:

The crowd was so great that it was impossible to enforce the customary regulations for the preservation of order and decorum. Although an unusually large detail of policemen and soldiers were on duty in anticipation of a throng, the mass of people became so dense as to be uncontrollable. The policemen stationed at the door of the Red Room to prevent the visitors from rushing through in so large a body as to inconvenience the President and his family were swept away and carried onward with the living tide to the Blue Room, where the throng was soon as dense as it was in all the other rooms and halls. The President seemed to be in excellent health and received the hosts of friends that poured in upon him with sincere pleasure and unflagging courtesy. Nearly all the first dignitaries of the land and Foreign Ministers were present, and among them were many radical Senators and Representatives. (The Story of the White House, by Esther Singleton, p. 112, 1907)

White House entertaining allowed the presidents and their wives to feature American comestibles and to set their tables with the best china and flatware.

Such dinners also enable presidents to press forward agendas of various sorts.

President and Madame Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast with President and Mrs. Kennedy

On May 22, 1962, long before the Civil Rights Act ever came about, President and Mrs. Kennedy hosted President and Madame Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast.  Although President Houphouet-Boigny ran his country as a dictatorship, history sees him in a fairly benevolent light. Certainly at the time, most of the African Americans in the White House walked in only through the service doors.

Nowadays, the menus and table décor at State Dinners undergo stringent vetting by the State Department, as well as the embassy of the country being honored. That way, the White House kitchen can be assured there will be no problems with allergies and that none of the colors and flowers used in table settings will be offensive to the guests, perhaps having special meanings in their culture.

Since India’s independence from Great Britain, American presidents have welcomed several Indian heads of state. This pictorial rendition of some these visits provides historical background for the upcoming visit by India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

This will be second time in recent history that Prime Minister Singh enjoys the hospitality of the American people in their house, so to speak.

In 2005, President George W. Bush welcomed Prime Minister Singh; the menu that evening included:

Chilled Asparagus Soup

Chappellet Chardonnay Napa Valley 2003

Pan-Roasted Halibut with Ginger-Carrot Butter

Basmati Rice with Pistachios and Currants

Herbed Summer Vegetables

Trio of Celery Hearts, Leaves and Roots

Bibb Lettuce Salad

Mango, Chocolate-Cardamom, and Cashew Ice Creams

Chef Marcus Samuelsson

Chef Marcus Samuelsson — cookbook author,* executive chef, and co-owner of the acclaimed New York restaurant Aquavit and a naturalized American citizen born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden — will be cooking for the Obamas on November 24, 2009, along with the regular White House chef, Cris Comerford. No doubt Chef Samuelsson will include similar elements in his menu — like basmati rice, ginger, cardamom, and cashews that will be familiar and welcoming to Prime Minister Singh.

The State Dining Room officially seats 120 people, and the Obamas have reportedly invited 400 guests. Thus, the event will take place outside in a tent, but what a tent!

It promises, indeed, to be an affair to remember. Wish I could be a fly on the wall there, at least!

A few of many books about the presidents and their food:

An Affair to Remember: State Dinners for Home Entertaining, by Laurie G. Firestone (2006)

The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy, by Barry Landau (2007)

*Chef Samuelsson’s books include:

Aquavit: And the New Scandinavian Cuisine

© 2009 C. Bertelsen