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Nothing sets the standard for extravagance and grandeur quite like 30-course gourmet French meal, am I right?
Before President Ulysses S. Grant’s historic debut feast, a 36-person December 12, 1874 dinner for King David Kalakaua of the Sandwich Islands, White House state dinners were fairly unfettered, low-key affairs. Originally, the events were merely regular formal social events to honor members of Congress, the president’s cabinet, or the Supreme Court. The term has since come to be designate those dinners organized by a sitting president to celebrate a visiting head of state. And, as Grant’s original multi-course extravaganza alludes, they’re kind of a big deal.
Arguably the highest diplomatic honor the U.S. can bestow on its allies and nations of power and importance, insiders have likened the state dinner to “the punchline in the diplomatic theater” that is a state visit. Former White House chef Walter Scheib famously said it was like putting on a Broadway show, that they’re “bigger than the biggest weddings.” The selection of the country being honored matters. The guest list—its size and scope—matters. The menu, decor, and entertainment matter, often planned and fretted over for months and months. And don’t even get me started on outfit selection. The way I see it: If this was an event planning competition, organizing this dinner would be the ultimate challenge in the grand, winner-takes-all finale.
Naturally, each administration interprets the important diplomatic event differently, reflecting their unique goals, style, and tone. And needless to say, more than a few presidents have interpreted the extravagant Grant’s first dinner as a cue to go big with the parties in their stately white home. Here are seven of the most elaborate examples from all time.
As the old adage goes: You only get one chance to make a first impression. And as far as White House state dinners go, President Obama’s 2009 debut definitely made a grand and lasting one. Honoring then-Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, and his wife Gursharan Kaur, the elaborate evening was reported to have cost nearly $600,000 ($572,187.36, to be exact). The list of powerful, famous, and influential who’s-whos in attendance included over 400 names, dwarfing the more standard 130-ish. Big names in politics and foreign affairs were there of course, as well as Hollywood heavyweights like Steven Spielberg, Blair Underwood, Katie Couric, and Jennifer Hudson, who was also tapped to perform. The black-tie affair saw men in tuxes, while the ladies, if not in their finest gowns, donned the traditional sari, intricately bedazzled and styled in an electric rainbow of colors. The First Lady, appropriately, wore a strapless silver embroidered gown by Indian-born designer Naeem Kahn.
In order to accommodate the size of the party, the night’s festivities were held under a large tent in South Lawn overlooking the Washington Monument rather than in the State Dining Room. Despite the large space, not even the tiniest of detail in decor was overlooked: Iridescent green linens backdropped against impressive displays of purple-tinted flowers (sweet peas, hydrangea, and garden roses) to reference the peacock, India’s state bird. Plates from the Eisenhower, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations were used, their gold, white, and pale green designs tying in thoughtfully to the aesthetic.
And speaking of plates, let’s talk about the food already. Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson oversaw the mostly vegetarian feast that drew heavily on seasonal ingredients from the White House Kitchen Garden. There was a potato and eggplant salad with White House arugula, red lentil soup, roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney and okra, as well as green curry prawns with smoked collard greens and coconut aged basmati rice. For dessert, pumpkin pie, pear tatin, cashew brittle, petit fours, and pralines were offered. As is customary, a roster of strictly American wine was served, and because dinner gets lonely without a show, there was also live music (A.R. Rahman’s Academy Award-winning “Jai Ho!” was one of the pieces performed) and dancing by the Bay Area Empire Bhangra dancers. Really, it sounds like a fun party, no wonder people were so keen to crash.
That the Kennedys put on some of the White House’s most exquisite, hottest-ticket-in-town state dinners should come as a surprise to no one. A textbook definition of #hostessgoals, the First Lady is said to have wanted the events to be classy but not stuffy, fun despite the inevitable and inherent political gravitas, and above all, original. For example, she is credited with changing up the usual seating arrangement, splicing up the usual long, single banquet table into several smaller round tables which allowed for the accommodation of more guests and loosened typical social protocols.
In another first, Jackie Kennedy was the first to host a state dinner outside of the White House. In the summer of 1961, then-Pakistani president Ayub Khan and his daughter were honored with an elaborate occasion at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. An exercise in style and elegance, guests were transported to the stately grounds via a fleet of four boats, including the President’s Yacht, where live cocktails and canapés were served. Upon docking, guests were taken by limousine to the property where they were treated to a military salute by soldiers wearing 18th century revolutionary war battle dress.
Dinner was held on the property’s East Lawn overlooking the Potomac under a show-stopping 30-by-50-foot turquoise and yellow tent designed by Tiffany & Co. of New York. Apparently, there were some 22 butlers on-hand to attend the every need of the select 138 guests who dined on a gourmet French meal of avocado and crab mimosa, a poulet chasseur et couronne de riz calamart (hunter-style chicken with rice), and raspberries with chantilly cream for dessert. (That they were fed so well is even more impressive considering that the estate lacked a working kitchen--everything had to be prepared at the White House kitchen and then subsequently transported to Mount Vernon.)
The youngest U.S. president to take office at 42, Teddy Roosevelt was said to have been a big fan of entertaining. Apparently, he claimed to have spent his entire salary, a not-so-shabby $50,000 (at the time, or even now), on social life at the White House. Over the course of his time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the President hosted a wide range of friends, family, political dignitaries, and guests from a reported 40 different nations. However, no event during his tenure was as grand as the state dinner held for the influential and powerful prince of Prussia. At the time, it was considered the most elaborate state dinner that the city had ever seen.
The men-only dinner was held in the East Room (in order to allow for more guests) at one sprawling U-shaped table adorned with bouquets upon bouquets overflowing with flowers, fine china, and crystal. Ivy-wrapped pillars, swooping floral garlands, and meticulously-decked glittering chandeliers completed the vision. Exquisitely printed menus were provided by the illustrious wine importer, George Kessler, aka the “Champagne King. Fittingly, selections from his repertoire of first-rate Möet & Chandon bubbly were featured on the 10-course menu. The impressive culinary display offered a grand gourmet tour that included everything from oysters on the half-shell, consommé, roast duck, beef filet, capon, asparagus with sauce mousseline, and ice cream with melted cherries. So yeah, they reveled like royalty.
The famously gregarious president and the politically savvy First Lady hosted an impressive 29 state dinners during their two terms in the White House. Known for being elegant yet festive star-studded affairs, none was more memorable or significant than the one held for Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, who had just years prior been released after nearly three decades in prison. Talk about pressure to put on a good party.
While not as large as some of the dinners that would follow it, the event is distinguished as being one of the largest to ever be held in the White House itself. To ensure that there was enough space to seat the nearly 200 guests selected for the hot-ticket dinner, the meal had to be moved to the larger East Room which was decorated with staggering centerpieces of pink Candia and Osiana roses. Significantly, too, it is also the room in which President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Attendees, dressed in their sleekest black-tie attire, included a cross-section of big names in politics, civil rights, business, and entertainment: Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan, Maya Angelou, and Harry Belafonte, to name a few. The legendary Whitney Houston performed her greatest hits in a tent in the Rose Garden after dinner to kick off the dancing.
As is to be expected, the details of the menu were very carefully considered. Apparently, the team went back and forth for a month trying to come up with a meal that paid tribute to traditional South African flavors and dishes while reflecting a lighter, more health-conscious side of American cuisine. Ultimately, the dinner featured a Cape Malay cuisine-inspired starter of layered late summer vegetables with lemongrass and red curry, sesame-crusted halibut with carrot juice broth, bibb and endive salad with New York wild-ripened cheese, and grandilla sherbet with lychees, raspberries, and apple sabayon for dessert. Esteemed American wines, including a 1985 Piper Sonoma Tête de Cuvée sparkling, gave the dinner an extra-special edge.
While certainly not as practiced a partier as his predecessor, President George W. Bush nevertheless succeeded in turning up the volume and pulling out all the stops for the occasion of the Queen of England’s 2007 visit. The state dinner, one of only six throughout his administration, stood out as an exceptionally classy, white-tie, diamonds-and-tiara kind of affair. The intimate affair of 134 guests included the likes of politicians and business heavyweights, TV personalities, musicians (violinist Itzhak Perlman performed an after-dinner concert), as well as sports stars such as NFL’s Peyton Manning and golfer Arnold Palmer. In a clever nod to the Queen’s love of horses and equestrian sport, the First Lady even made a last-minute addition to the guest list: Calvin Borel, the jockey who just days prior had won Kentucky Derby.
For dinner, the glitzy State Dining Room was decorated in shades of cream, gold, and ivory. Each of the 13 round tables featured the Clinton china set, pearl-handled silverware, gilded candelabras, and a vermeil centerpiece of 60 white roses. It’s said that Laura Bush would hold “Iron Chef”-style competitions to determine the menus of the state dinners, and the five-course menu served on this evening certainly sounded like a winner. There was spring pea soup with American caviar to start, Dover sole almondine, followed by saddle of spring lamb with chanterelle sauce, arugula salad with champagne dressing and farmhouse cheese, and concluded with meringue and spun sugar “rose blossoms.”
Apparently, Richard and Pat Nixon just loved to throw a party. The First Couple hosted an impressive 42 state dinners during their White House tenure, the third-most held in U.S. history behind LBJ’s 54 and Reagan’s 52. Not shy about celebrating the pomp and circumstance of the event, the Nixon administration is known for bringing back white-tie attire—very high-brow and chi-chi, it is considered the most formal style of dress in Western fashion. According to their social secretary Lucy Winchester Breathitt, this was done to allow foreign leaders an opportunity display their various medals and diplomatic honors. (Not to mention it makes for quite an impressive-looking photo-op.)
It turns out the administration was such a fan of the fête that they also hosted numerous official dinners (aka ones that are privately funded) that equaled, if not surpassed, the scale and grandeur of his official state dinners. Though the one celebrating jazz legend Duke Ellington was said to be the stuff of, well, legend, none was more out of this world than the August 1969 dinner honoring the astronauts of Apollo 11. Proclaimed the “dinner of the century” by the Los Angeles Times, the appropriately immodestly-sized 1,440-guest party was held in the Los Angeles Ballroom at the luxurious Century Plaza Hotel. Among those there to celebrate guests of honor Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, their wives, and the wives of fallen astronauts were: 44 governors, nearly every U.S. Cabinet member, the Supreme Court, diplomats and dignitaries from over 90 countries, Hollywood elites, and aviation industry influencers. A see-and-be-seen scene to rival all others.
While the theme of the evening was an obvious choice—“space”—some of the ideas for decor proved a little too difficult to execute, like bringing in the Wright Brothers’ original plane, or the Apollo 11 space capsule (too big for the doors, go figure). Nevertheless, songs like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Moonglow” helped set the tone, as did an eclectic and decadent menu of around-the-world delights that culminated in “moon rock” petit fours and an original dessert: the Clair de Lune, a sweet moon-shaped confection of marzipan, meringue, and blackberry sauce, topped with an American flag, naturally.
To say that the Reagans liked hosting state dinners is nothing short of an understatement, given that the First Couple hosted over 50 glitzy, celebrity-studded extravaganzas during their time at the White House. Given the president’s own pre-politics Hollywood status, the well-attended events sought to bring back the Kennedy Era glam and never failed to bring together a hotbed of A-List personalities. Of all the important world leaders and influencers Reagan’s White House would host (like, say, President Gorbachev, not long after the president’s famous “tear down this wall” speech), arguably none was more memorable than the royal couple Prince Charles and Princess Diana. After all, who could ever forget that iconic image of the princess cutting a rug with John Travolta?
But as far as official state dinners go, the Reagans’ first, honoring then-British PM Margaret Thatcher, really set the tone of high-class elegance. A female marine harpist played in the Diplomatic Reception Room as sequined and shoulder-padded guests trickled in (hey, it was the style of the time, they get a pass). The invite list was clipped to an unusually trim 94 names, giving the evening an amplified sense of exclusivity (especially considering Bob Hope and Charlton Heston were among them). There were cocktails in the marble-floored East Room first, followed by dinner in the State Dining Room which was theatrically adorned with basket of red and blue anemones, silver candlesticks, vermeil flatware, and crystal. The menu pulled out all the appropriate stops: pompano supreme in champagne, roast rack of lamb with mint sauce, hearts of lettuce and brie, and Grand Marnier soufflé for dessert. California sparkling and vintage wines were there to accompany it all. And to cap it all off, the Dance Theatre of Harlem performed a special piece choreographed by Arthur Mitchell after dinner.