State Dinners are affairs of such overwhelming pageantry that I, for one, can easily overlook the fact that although you and I pay for them, you and I are never invited to them.
This latter truism is borne out by the fact that one of us would surely make some monumental political gaffe, not really understanding the official protocol of smooching the butts of visiting dignitaries in order to insure that they do not drop nuclear bombs on us.
State Dinners have been aristocratic levees since the early nineteenth century. Once white-tie, they’re now black-tie affairs hosted by the President of the United States in the State Dining Room. They follow a day of pomp and fanfare, much of it overseen by honor guards and color guards in full dress uniform, proving to guest officials that our army is as tough as theirs, if a bit gayer looking.
The dinner itself is the climax of the day’s ceremonies—generally a four or five course culinary extravaganza.
Planning and Execution
Planning these menus, including appropriate wine pairings, is a task of such proportions that three White House staffers are required to carry it off. First, Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall makes certain that no blatant blunders occur, such as serving frog legs to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, bacon-wrapped pork noisettes made from pigs slaughtered by neo-Nazis to Israeli President Shimon Peres or human flesh to Ugandan Head of State Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.
Next, White House Chief Usher coordinates each menu item with White House Executive Chef. The current Chief Usher is an Jamaican-born woman named Angella Reid—Ms. Penavic Marshall and she thus makes certain that all dishes contain marijuana.
How the Wines Are Chosen
The wines that this trio pick to pair with each course are not selected strictly for food compatibility. Certain international courtesy codes are followed, taking into consideration the guest of honor’s religious affiliation, cultural traditions and dietary habits. And since only American wines are served, this can sometimes be a tough call. One classic faux pas occurred when a California sparkling wine was served to a French diplomat—a wine labeled ‘Champagne’.
Occasionally, the President himself will make suggestions for wine. Gerald Ford, for example, had a bias for Michigan wines and would request that they accompany at least one course.
Typical State Dinner Menu
A representative example of a State Dinner menu is that of President Obama’s recent honor of Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China:
D’Anjou Pear Salad with Farmstead Goat Cheese
Fennel, black walnuts and white balsamic
Poached Maine Lobster, Orange Glazed Carrots and Black Trumpet Mushrooms with Dumul Chardonnay, ‘Russian River’, 2008.
Dry aged Rib Eye with Buttermilk Crisp Onions
Double Stuffed Potatoes and Creamed Spinach with Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005.
Old Fashioned Apple Pie with Vanilla Ice Cream with Poet’s Leap Riesling ‘Botrytis’, 2008.
An Odd But Beloved Tradition
Although State Dinners are extremely formal functions, and include decorous receiving lines and ceremonious lectern speeches during which United States Marine Band violinists disperse throughout the room, there is one odd, traditional ritual little known outside of White House staffers—one which visiting heads of state often find puzzling:
During meal service, a mentally-challenged midget known as the ‘Silly Hat Kid’ goes from table to table and cuts out silly hats from construction paper. Each guest is then required to wear his or her silly hat for the remainder of the meal. If they take it off, they’re shot by the color guard. Everyone is expected to tip handsomely for the hats, and if they cannot or refuse to do so, the ‘Silly Hat Kid’ exposes his genitals to the table until the offending guest returns to his hotel room to fetch some cash.
Likely the most aggressively generous State Dinner President was Thomas Jefferson, although ironically, they were not held for foreign diplomats, but rather used as a power technique among Congressmen for political ends.
The closest thing to a wino President we have ever had, Jefferson had vaults constructed below the east colonnade to hold his sizable wine collection. He is said to have spent more than $11,000 on wine during his two terms as President; a sum that in today’s economy would equal $175,000.
The importance of wine to State Dinners cannot be underestimated—yet another reason not to elect that teetotalin’ Mormon weenie Mitt Romney.