Feature

All the Presidents’ Meals

America’s laden tables used to wow queens and premiers. But is state dinner diplomacy as outdated as lobster aspic?

Frozen cheese with watercress salad. Calf’s head soup. Terrapin with cornbread sticks.

These were all on the menu when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt hosted Britain’s King George VI at a 1939 White House state dinner.

Today, they sound stomach-churning, but for an American in 1939, the goat cheese gateau with tomato jam that President Donald Trump served at his 2018 state dinner might have provoked the same reaction.

The White House state dinner menus show how American tastes have changed over time—and with them, the image that the country projects to the world. The choices, from starters to entertainment, made at the national banquets helped shape the way leaders such as the king of Hawaii and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev saw the United States.

From the time of the first Thanksgiving, the idea of the full dinner table has held a powerful symbolic value for the United States. The country’s abundant natural resources and ample arable land fueled an agrarian economy that persisted decades after Europe experienced its industrial revolution. For a nation of mythologized yeoman farmers and field hands, feasts were an ideal and a symbol of the country’s prosperity—the USA doing what it did best.

The U.S. state dinner is “a formal declaration to celebrate the fact that we recognize that head of state and that we welcome him or her in a show of civil hospitality. They are America’s guest of honor for that evening,” said Frank Ruta, a former White House executive sous-chef.

The state dinner is a dual-faceted diplomatic tool. On the one hand, the dinner is devoted to the guest of honor. The president and their spouse make their visitors, usually heads of state themselves, feel welcome and ready to reaffirm their relationship with the commander in chief. But they also show the tastes of the United States—and those who lead it.

That goat cheese gateau shows the world what the United States thinks tastes good, in 2018, as interpreted by the Trump administration.

In other words, that goat cheese gateau isn’t just supposed to taste good. The dish shows the world what the United States thinks tastes good, in 2018, as interpreted by the Trump administration. It’s not an entirely personal matter. If the state dinner menu were left entirely up to Trump’s tastes, French President Emmanuel Macron might have ended up being served 300 (or 1,000) hamburgers from McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s, along with a slice of beautiful chocolate cake, when the White House hosted him in April 2018.

The fact that Trump (or Melania Trump, to be more precise, as the first lady traditionally plans the state dinner menus with the chief usher, executive chef, and wine usher) opted to serve courses such as that gateau, a roast rack of lamb with burnt cipollini soubise, a salad of young variegated lettuces, and crème fraîche ice cream for dessert, instead of some of his favorite foods, shows that even a notoriously undiplomatic president can realize the importance of the subtle messaging at the table.

But each president’s interpretation of the state dinner menu has been different, shaped not only by their times but also by their view of America’s place in the world.

Is it better to serve the foods of the guest of honor’s country or to demonstrate a universal culinary language? Which types of wines are the best? Should jellied lobster ever be attempted? Sadly, for Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson through George H.W. Bush the answer to that last question was yes. Sometimes more than once.

Foreign Policy has collected menus for White House state dinners dating back nearly 86 years. Obtaining these menus required extensive research within presidential libraries, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress, as well as two Freedom of Information Act requests (for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush). We started with Franklin D. Roosevelt, because he was the first president to host multiple state dinners honoring a head of state. For the purposes of a more complete understanding of the White House’s culinary journeys, some menus for dinners not designated as a true “state dinner” (which must occur during an official state visit) were also included. Even though they were technically designated “official dinners” because the guest wasn’t on a state visit, these events were often still referred to as state dinners by the media and prepared similarly to a state dinner.

We arranged that data into graphs known as treemaps, in which data are represented by a series of boxes that vary in size and color depending on quantity. The more times a dish was served, the larger the box.

 

Changing Tastes

Compare the menus of more than 392 state dinners over 14 administrations.

After creating these visualizations, some general trends quickly became clear. State dinner cuisine from the 1930s through the 1950s was relatively modest—almost like a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The menus for Presidents John F. Kennedy through George H.W. Bush were considerably fancier and more oriented toward French cuisine. Starting with Bill Clinton, the menus became more diverse, highlighting dishes from the guest’s country while also embracing local cuisine.

The concept of a salad morphed from a cream-cheese-smothered-watercress monstrosity to a garden in a bowl.

“American food had gotten a lot more sophisticated in the 1990s,” explained the food writer Michael Pollan. Starting with the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley in the 1970s, Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and other noted California chefs created a food revolution that “highlighted American ingredients and a kind of simplicity in cooking, that great cooking begins with great ingredients,” Pollan said.

No American menu has reached the heights—or lows—of the infamous banquet served to a visiting Soviet delegation by Mao Zedong’s China in 1954, where the centerpiece, “Dragon Fighting the Tiger,” consisted of a skinned cat and a python. The Soviets blankly refused to partake in the traditional festive Cantonese dish, while two secretaries were violently ill, and an already rocky relationship crumbled further. 

America’s dinner-table diplomacy has been more sensitive. While Kennedy and Johnson paid tribute to their guests simply by naming desserts after them, such as the “Bavarois Sato” (a type of Bavarian cream) served to Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in 1965, 21st-century Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama often hosted leaders by offering a menu where almost half the dishes were inspired by the guest’s country, such as when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was served shikai maki, grilled chicken with koji, and a toro tartare and Caesar sashimi salad in 2015.

Other trends reflect 80 years of shifts in the American palate. The concept of a salad morphed from a cream-cheese-smothered-watercress monstrosity to a garden in a bowl. Another change: American wine was not served at a state dinner until the 1960s.

“Because most of it sucked!” Pollan said.

The charts also reflect each president’s quirks. George H.W. Bush, known for his hatred of broccoli, never served it at his state dinners. What he lacked in broccoli, though, he made up in mousse: His and Reagan’s menus seem to prove that nearly any food can be whipped into submission.

Nancy Reagan is served an orange surprise dessert during the dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone on April 30, 1987. (Collection of Roland Mesnier/White House Historical Association)

There were also nods to the presidents’ favorite foods. Harry S. Truman served watermelon pickles more than once, including to then-Princess Elizabeth of England. Nearly every state dinner under Johnson included beef or steak, whereas Clinton, whose presidency coincided with the low-fat-crazed 1990s, served beef only twice. Turkey, once a common state dinner course, was never seen again after Dwight D. Eisenhower. Pork (other than ham and one pork belly canapé in 2016) appears never to have been served at a state dinner.

“I guess veal, lamb, and beef seemed more sophisticated,” Ruta said.

“Generally beef has long been seen as the meat of aspiration, of striving,” said the food writer Adrian Miller, whose 2017 book The President’s Kitchen Cabinet describes the history of African-Americans in the White House kitchen. And, he added, “So many cultures have taboos about pork.”

But the state dinner’s future is uncertain. George W. Bush and Obama, both two-term presidents, hosted 13 dinners apiece. That’s as many as Richard Nixon threw his first year in office. Trump, who became president over two years ago, has so far hosted only one. The number of female candidates in the upcoming 2020 presidential election also raises another question: If the first lady traditionally oversees the state dinner, would the first gentleman take that responsibility if one of these candidates won? Or would he delegate that authority to someone else?

In the age before social media, a state dinner was one of the White House’s best opportunities to show the world America’s hospitality and form bonds with other world leaders. Now that heads of state can more easily communicate, or even see what the U.S. president is thinking in 280-character bursts, a multicourse meal can seem quaint in comparison.

“It seems to me that style and entertaining take a back seat to everything else that is going on today,” Ruta said.

Or, maybe attitudes have changed over time as much as the food.

“I think the public is more, let’s just say, anti-aristocratic about these things,” Miller said.

“I think if a president has a lot of these state dinners, they think, ‘Why is this president showing off?’”

 

Dig In: How the Graphics Work

Click on one of the six categories to get to subcategories. Click deeper for specific dish names. To go back and move on to the next course, click on the bar at the top. Leave room for dessert!

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Franklin D. Roosevelt

March 4, 1933 - April 12, 1945 | 26* Dinners

The Roosevelts might have been American aristocracy, but when it came to the dinner table, the radical spirit of the New Deal was very much in play. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, especially Eleanor, wanted to rebuild social functions at the White House into something more purposeful and progressive.

State dinners under the previous president, Herbert Hoover, consisted of seven courses: a shellfish course (usually oysters or clams), soup served with celery and olives, fish, a meat course, salad, a dessert course accompanied by coffee and sometimes candy, and finally a fruit course. Guests would wash these down with a tall glass of water, because Prohibition. At Hoover’s April 29, 1931, state dinner for the king of Siam, according to the Washington Evening Star, Hoover served “an elaborate menu” of “a rare species of fish, cold lobster, cunningly devised baskets of beets, stacked with cucumbers, smothered chicken breast, endive in spring salad, fruits, ices and candy.”

From the data we’ve gathered, that was the last lobster served at a state dinner for 20 years.

“I was told there would be no waste, as in the Hoover Administration, and that Mrs. Roosevelt did not believe in elaborate dinners,” former White House head butler Alonzo Fields recounted in his book, My 21 Years in the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt cut two courses off of dinner, according to Fields: “If there was an entree, soup would usually be cut out. If there were an entree and soup, the fish course would be omitted. And no fruit course.”

But Roosevelt’s state dinners were still a far cry from today’s sensibilities. A look at the menus shows state dinners in the 1930s nixed the fruit but still maintained the other six courses (the seafood courses were dropped after 1942). We know little about what they drank, because it was rarely included on the menu and only described in general terms such as “white wine” or “sherry”—although, in the case of the state dinner for Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista in December 1942, they went for whiskey sours.

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The food served was also rather modest in comparison to what previous presidents provided. Fancy feasts would have been a bad look in the middle of the Great Depression—and then positively treasonous during the (limited) rationing of the United States in World War II. (Across the pond, that didn’t stop British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose accumulated debt to his wine merchant reached the equivalent of $75,000 today.) And Eleanor Roosevelt believed that it was more important for food to be nourishing for the lowest possible price than for it to taste good—a message she ardently conveyed to America’s housewives with recipes for mushy spaghetti casserole and prune pudding. Outside of state dinners, she—with the help of her housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt, who oversaw the kitchen—transformed the White House kitchens into a model of economy, to her husband’s dismay, priding herself on keeping meals under 10 cents.

Hence the plethora of simple chicken and turkey state dinners matched with an odd assortment of vegetable courses—lima beans, rutabagas, and generally whatever Nesbitt found on sale at the PX, the military’s department store.

“Though the food was good and wholesome,” Fields wrote, “Let us say its presentation was poorly done, with no desire to please or excite the appetite.”

There are few records of what the honored heads of state thought of these meals, but a letter Ernest Hemingway wrote to his mother-in-law in 1937 about his dinner at the White House is rather illustrative. “We had a rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.”

* This number excludes state dinners held before World War II under the original definition, which referred to three dinners held every winter for the cabinet, U.S. diplomats, and the Supreme Court, respectively. Some official dinners for non-heads of state, such as leaders’ wives and Gen. Charles de Gaulle, were included because of the special circumstances surrounding the war and to flesh out the dataset.

Bolivian President Enrique Peñaranda signs the United Nations Declaration beside U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt during a state dinner at the White House on May 5, 1943. (George R. Skadding/AP)

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Harry S. Truman

April 12, 1945 - January 20, 1953 | 6* State Dinners

This is not a joke: Truman served both Dutch Prime Minister Willem Drees and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill Fritos.

Truman presided over a major renovation of the White House, which meant all of his state dinners from 1947 to 1952 were held in various hotels around Washington. Because they weren’t held in the White House itself, few records were kept. Anything before 1947, such as his state dinner with Prime Ministers Clement Attlee of Britain and William Lyon Mackenzie King of Canada in November 1945, is lost for good. But from what we do know, thanks to numerous luncheons and dinners with smaller guest sizes, the food stood in the tradition of Roosevelt, albeit with better preparation and a Missouri twist thanks to Truman’s home state. And it came with a certain corn chip, although to cut Truman some slack the Fritos were served at luncheons—in January 1952 for Drees and April 1951 for Churchill—not dinners.

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In 1945, the Trumans fired Roosevelt’s cook, Nesbitt, and kitchen supervision passed over to their old personal chef, an African-American woman named Vietta Garr who had been a servant for the family since 1928. She instructed the White House kitchen how to cook “the Missouri way.” This meant lots of fried chicken or fried turkey and a remarkable amount of melons and pickles—sometimes pickled melons. Then-Princess Elizabeth of England was served baked Old Missouri ham, french fried potato balls, and watermelon pickles along with the lobster thermidor at her state dinner in October 1951, shortly before she became queen.

The wine still goes largely unmentioned. President Elpidio Quirino of the Philippines was served a dry sherry, Sauterne, and a red wine at his August 1949 state dinner, which aside from the lack of Champagne seems to fit the general pattern of state dinner wines during this time period. Mentioned far more frequently are the hard liquor selections. Truman had a reputation as a bourbon fan, starting every day at 5 a.m. with a shot. As a result, every luncheon started with old fashioneds, martinis, and tomato juice. At Churchill’s March 1949 state dinner, he was served sherry, white wine, martinis, scotch, and “Old Jack”—a combination that must have made for some unsteady footsteps home even by the two leaders’ hard-drinking standards.

* A total of 26 menus were consulted for this dataset, however. Given the White House renovation and the lack of available data on state dinners held at Blair House, the majority of these menus come from state luncheons, stag luncheons (no women allowed), and official dinners. A 1949 dinner and 1951 luncheon for Winston Churchill were included, although he was no longer head of state at the time, because they were prepared similarly to a state dinner.

President Harry S. Truman and first lady Bess Truman with President Gabriel González Videla of Chile and his wife, Rosa Markmann de González Videla, at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington during the Chilean president’s visit on April 14, 1950. Right: A note written by Truman details his busy schedule during a state visit by the president of Ecuador in June 1951. (Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/National Archives)

Eisenhower_illo

Dwight D. Eisenhower

January 20, 1953 - January 20, 1961 | 24* State Dinners

It’s tempting to look at Eisenhower’s passions for soup and toast—three different kinds of toast!—and conclude that his dinners were the epitome of the 1950s malaise of American cuisine. That’s not wholly off base; Eisenhower’s dining tastes were forged in the Army, and though he was an accomplished cook, his preference for simple food never disappeared. He was not above serving saltines and toasted Triscuits to his foreign guests.

Mamie Eisenhower, while not exactly a foodie, was a general’s wife who ruled the White House kitchen with a pink-gloved iron fist. She insisted on overseeing every menu and even included some of her own desserts at state dinners from time to time, such as the gelatin-based “Frosted Mint Delight” (so ’50s).

But the simplicity of Eisenhower’s dinners has less to do with militaristic discipline and more to do with the customs of the time. Eisenhower’s biggest dinner distinction is the transition between the austerity of the 1930s and 1940s to the postwar boom. In his second term, the state dinners get noticeably fancier, matching the boom times of the 1950s. As U.S. global commitments increased, Europe stabilized enough to welcome visitors again, and the American tourist became a new stereotype, a fresh appreciation of foreign cuisine also started making its way back to the dinner table.

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We also see the first appearance of many dishes that are mainstays on the state dinner menus all the way to George H.W. Bush: wild rice, bibb lettuce salads, artichokes, mousse. By 1959 he’s serving “Aspic of Pâté de Foie Gras,” a dish so extra and laden with buzzwords that you might as well call it “Avocado Ceviche Kobe Beef Toast with Quinoa” for the Greatest Generation. But Ike was a humble Kansan at heart: The foie gras gelatin was served with Boston brown bread sandwiches. Still, Eisenhower’s gentle nudges of change are apparent. If Roosevelt kept his state dinners humble to show the United States he was willing to sacrifice, too, Eisenhower helped show America that, “Hey, it’s okay to be fancy again.”

Eisenhower was also the first president to document the selected wines on every state dinner menu. The structure is the same for every state dinner: A sherry with every first course, a Sauterne for the next course, a Burgundy for the following, and a Champagne at the end. Starting with the state dinner for South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem in May 1957, the wines are finally labeled, too. The wineries are notably all from France or Spain. The ever-moderate and incremental Eisenhower was, in fact, the first president to serve California wines at White House social functions—but only at luncheons and dinners lower on the social totem pole than the state dinner. A burgeoning, experimental wine industry in the Golden State during the 1950s did not quite erase the product’s global reputation as table wine.

* A total of 23 menus were used for this dataset. The menu for Eisenhower’s June 4, 1958, state dinner for President Theodor Heuss of West Germany could not be found by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library.

The Eisenhowers and the Khrushchevs pose before a state dinner at the White House in September 1959. Ever the proletarian, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev refused to wear the customary white tie and tails. “My husband would just as soon dress that way, too, if I’d let him,” said first lady Mamie Eisenhower. Right: President Dwight D. Eisenhower loved soup so much that he even created his own. His detailed recipe for vegetable soup was printed in an Iowa newspaper in 1954. (The Washington Post/Getty Images/National Archives)

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John F. Kennedy

January 20, 1961 - November 22, 1963 | 14* State Dinners

The Kennedys brought unprecedented class and sophistication to the White House state dinner. Jacqueline Kennedy restructured the White House staff and created a new executive chef position to handle formal dinners. The days of family friends and old military buddies commanding the cooks were over.

The executive chef hired by the first lady was a renowned, formally trained French chef named René Verdon. His impact on the menus was immediate. Main courses transformed from roast turkey to “Tournedos Heloise” (steak with black truffle sauce). The “olives and celery” course vanished into history alongside doo-wop and poodle skirts. Verdon also insisted on the freshest, highest-quality ingredients possible. Decades before first lady Michelle Obama’s garden, he grew vegetables on the White House roof and herbs in the East Garden.

“The White House has always claimed to have French cooking, always. But it really got that way with Kennedy,” the historian William Seale said. Indeed, the whole country in the early 1960s went gaga for the Gauls. Julia Child’s epochal book Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, the year Kennedy took office. Even Kennedy’s menus were written in French, although it was really more “Frenglish,” with dish names like “Roast Sirloin Vert Pre.”

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But not all French cuisine is for the diamond credit card set, as the Kennedys demonstrated. JFK is only one of two presidents known to have served waffle fries as a side dish (the other is Lyndon B. Johnson, but there’s still time for President Trump). They’re referred to on the menu as the slightly less Chick-fil-A “potatoes gaufrettes.”

Kennedy was a global president, starting the Peace Corps and making travel a far more frequent role of the presidency, with eight state visits in his less than three years in office—three times the rate of Eisenhower. But despite his cultural diplomacy, nods to other countries are kept mostly to the desserts, usually themes on a faddish 1960s dessert known as a bombe. For the grand duchess of Luxembourg’s state dinner in April 1963, for example, she was served Bombe Glacée Grand Duchesse. Sadly, there’s no record of his ever serving Berliners—a colloquial term for German jelly doughnuts.

Wines came predominantly from France, but at his state dinner for Peruvian President Manuel Prado Ugarteche on Sept. 19, 1961, Kennedy became the first president to serve state dinner guests a wine from the United States: Almaden pinot noir. He was also the first president to serve chardonnay, which—along with the occasional pinot blanc—replaced sherry as the first-course wine.

A state dinner with Chancellor Ludwig Erhard of West Germany scheduled for Nov. 25, 1963, was to feature Boston fillet of sole Verdi, roast sirloin Concorde, spinach à la crème, mousse of Roquefort, and bombe glacée nelusko with petits fours for dessert. On Nov. 1, social secretary Nancy Tuckerman wrote a memo to appointments secretary Kenneth O’Donnell complaining that the suggested guest list, which included Robert F. Kennedy, Milton Berle, Marlene Dietrich, Aaron Copland, and Martha Graham, was much too large. She urged him and the president to do “a great deal of cutting.”

There was no need. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, and the dinner was canceled.

* This includes the planned menu for his canceled Nov. 25, 1963 state dinner honoring Ludwig Erhard, the chancellor of West Germany.

The Kennedys hosted Ivory Coast President Félix Houphouët-Boigny and his wife, Marie-Thérèse Houphouët-Boigny, during a state dinner at the White House in 1962. Right: The menu, with notes President John F. Kennedy scribbled as he prepared to give the evening’s toast. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

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Lyndon B. Johnson

November 22, 1963 - January 20, 1969 | 54 State Dinners

True to the man who passed the Civil Rights Act while regularly taking meetings on his toilet, President Johnson’s state dinner menus were one-of-a-kind and ahead of their time, pushing the boundaries of good taste.

After the state dinner with Ludwig Erhard scheduled for the week after Kennedy was assassinated was canceled, Johnson invited the West German chancellor to his Texas ranch the following month for the first-ever “presidential barbecue.” According to Lady Bird Johnson’s diary, they served Erhard and 300 others “beans (pinto beans, always), delicious barbecued spare ribs, cole slaw, followed by fried apricot pies with lots of hot coffee. And plenty of beer.”

Chef René Verdon was aghast. “You can eat at home what you want, but you do not serve barbecued spareribs at a banquet with the ladies in white gloves,” he told the Washington Post.

The LBJ White House state dinner menus never included barbecue but nevertheless resemble a French cookbook as interpreted by Texans. Johnson was not a picky eater, but he was definitely a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy—literally. More than three-quarters of his state dinners included beef, lamb, or veal. The menus were written in English again. Several desserts were named after the guest of honor, such as “Glace Macapagal” (for Filipino President Diosdado Macapagal in October 1964) and “Meringue Park” (for South Korean President Park Chung-hee in May 1965).

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Johnson’s wine selections, despite his official drink being “bourbon and branch water,” according to the White House press office at the time, were as pioneering and controversial as Medicare and Medicaid. Although Kennedy was the first president to serve an American wine at a state dinner, Johnson was the first to serve American wines exclusively. This was over 10 years before the Judgment of Paris, when wine snobs still automatically assumed the inferiority of American vintages.

The Americanized food and wine were two parts of a larger diplomatic effort by the Johnson administration to showcase products from a country at the height of its power and influence. U.S. embassies were ordered to start serving the homeland’s wines as well. Eliminating foreign wines from the State Dining Room also helped deal with “the major problem of the balance-of-payments deficit and gold outflow,” the New York Times reported in 1965. In other words, it wouldn’t have look good for Johnson to continue offering Dom Pérignon while asking Americans to quit buying foreign goods.

Befitting one of the most ambitious presidents of the 20th century, Johnson also holds the record for most state dinners: a staggering 54. That was over eight times the number hosted by Truman. Johnson even hosted two state dinners within three days of each other on the week of June 8, 1964.

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson also made a decision that would define state dinners at the White House for decades. When Chef Verdon quit in December 1965, they hired Henry Haller as his replacement. A Swiss-born hotel chef, Haller oversaw state dinner cuisine for the next 21 years.

As the tumultuous 1960s came to a close, so did Johnson’s time in office and, as it turned out, his vision of what a state dinner should be. After Richard Nixon became president in January 1969, he reverted the food and wine at state dinners back to how they had been under Kennedy. Had the years 1964 to 1968 really happened, or were they simply a frenzied, sirloin-and-spuds fever dream?

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Richard Nixon

January 20, 1969 - August 9, 1974 | 40 State Dinners

Richard Nixon’s state dinners were like his own character: complicated, underrated, and nearly destroyed by flaws.

Nixon hosted 40 state dinners before he resigned. Perhaps as a typically Nixonian attempt to convince others of his status, 13 of those dinners were in his first year alone. He was also the first president to host a leader of the Soviet Union—General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev on June 18, 1973—since the 1950s. Brezhnev was served supreme of lobster en bellevue (chilled lobster removed from the shell and decorated with aspic, truffles, and green leaves, according to Ruta, the former executive sous-chef), contre-filet of beef bordelaise, paillettes dorées (a very Gallic way to say “cheese straws”), pommes aux amandes, eggplant and green beans orientale, a bibb lettuce salad with Port Salut cheese, and vacherin glacé aux framboises for dessert.

The dinner was a fitting coda to Nixon’s “kitchen debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow back in July 1959. During a series of discussions over the relative merits of the United States and Soviet Union at the American National Exhibition in Moscow (which Brezhnev also attended), America’s then-vice president stressed to the Soviet premier, “In this day and age to argue who is stronger completely misses the point. With modern weapons it just does not make sense. If war comes we both lose.” Despite the military advantages held by the Soviet Union, Nixon argued, the United States provided a better quality of life for its citizens.

Although the tension between superpowers in 1973 was dulled by detente and the SALT I treaty, the state dinners held for Brezhnev in Washington and Nixon at the Soviet Embassy over that summer were where the kitchen debate spilled over into the dining room. During this Francophilic era of American state dinners, lobster bellevue was reserved for a limited number of state dinners. It was expensive and difficult to prepare. It helped demonstrate to the guest of honor the American horn of plenty at its meat gelatin-coated finest and fullest. Nixon’s opening volley to Brezhnev would be returned five days later, when the premier hosted a “reciprocal dinner” at the Soviet Embassy. He was feted by Brezhnev with caviar with butter, coulibiac (a type of pie), a “seafood assortment” (including dried meat from the back of a sturgeon), woodland game birds, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, borscht, starry sturgeon with champignon mushrooms, Russian-style meat and potato stew, and strawberry mousse. Priyatnogo appetita!

One unexpected winner in Nixon’s gastrodiplomacy, however, was the American Chinese restaurant. The dinners hosted in his honor during his historic 1972 visit to China revolutionized restaurant menus in the United States. A country that knew of Chinese food mainly as chop suey and egg rolls was exposed to a variety of new dishes during the media blitz—mu shu pork and Peking duck, for instance.

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But the real culinary victor of the Nixon White House was Paris. While Johnson downplayed Kennedy’s French revolution, Nixon brought it back in force. His dinners were so French, the menu for United Kingdom Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s state dinner in January 1970 referred to a Brussels sprouts dish as “Choux de Bruxelles.”

“The menus may have something to do with the fact that the Nixons held in high esteem what the Kennedy administration had done and how they had done it at the White House,” Seale, the historian, said. Pat Nixon and Jackie Kennedy were good friends, according to Seale, despite the bitterness of the 1960 election.

Although Nixon came from humble roots in rural Southern California, he had expensive taste, especially in wine. Many of his favored wines were pricey French Bordeaux and German rieslings, such as Bernkasteler Doctor—the most expensive German wine you could buy at the time. His treemap includes more Cristal than a Jay-Z album.

“Nixon, he had a very acute taste, high taste for wines. Maybe more than any other president,” Seale said. But he apparently didn’t like to share if he didn’t have to. Seale described how at dinners presumably not paid for by the State Department, Nixon would request wines be served to him that didn’t appear on the menus. The other guests were given “the cheaper stuff.” In their book The Final Days, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein depict the president serving a Bordeaux worth $5 (about $25 today) to the congressmen he entertained on the presidential yacht one evening, while stewards poured him a bottle of $30 Chateau Margaux (about $150 now), a favored wine of President Thomas Jefferson. The bottle was wrapped in a napkin to conceal the label from the congressmen. He wasn’t nicknamed “Tricky Dick” for nothing.

Unfortunately, Nixon’s sophisticated French fare is brought down by his taste in salad. They’re not the worst—nothing will beat Roosevelt’s and Truman’s cream cheese salads—but the salads are dull and standardized in contrast to his elaborate choices elsewhere. He served the same bibb lettuce salad 14 state dinners in a row, from 1972 to the final dinner in December 1973.

It’s as if the White House stopped caring once Watergate blew up.

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Gerald Ford

August 9, 1974 - January 20, 1977 | 34* State Dinners

Gerald Ford served as president for just two and a half years and yet found time to host 34 state dinners—the fifth most of any president. His output was as solid and steady as Ford himself. Seven of those state dinners were in the last five months of 1974 alone, his first five months of office. He even hosted Jordan’s King Hussein on Aug. 16, 1974, a mere week after he became president. And that wasn’t even technically Ford’s first state dinner—or his first state dinner with King Hussein.

A dinner hosted by then-President Nixon had been scheduled with the king for March 12, 1974. A week prior to the event, however, Ford’s national security advisor, Jack Marsh, issued a memo requesting the vice president host in Nixon’s place. The president, perhaps preoccupied by Congress’s ongoing investigation into grounds for his impeachment, perhaps shunning events covered by the evil liberal media, instead spent that evening at the Veterans of Foreign Wars 25th Annual Congressional Banquet, where he was presented with a case of five commemorative medallions. The ever-reliable Ford, meanwhile, found a way to host the king at the White House despite being scheduled for a talk in San Diego that afternoon.

Ford, who promised to restore dignity to the White House, also used state dinners as a way to reassure foreign leaders. Stable allies were important amid the chaos of the mid-1970s, with the Yom Kippur War, the energy crisis, the fall of Saigon, and the rise of terrorism in Europe. Ford was saying, “Don’t worry. Even though the guy before me resigned, you can trust me to keep this ship afloat.”

In fact, he said precisely that at one dinner. “I would like to assure you … that we will continue the policy we have pursued up to now,” the president told King Hussein, according to the August 1974 dinner’s Memoranda of Conversation. The king later dined on cold Columbia River salmon en bellevue (yup, more aspic) with paillettes dorées.

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And what of the food? Gerald Ford was a transitional president with transitional state dinners. For the first year, Ford menus were a continuation of the precedent set by Kennedy and Nixon: French menus with French names. But Ford’s desire for the nation to move forward seems to show in his state dinners. By 1975 the “broccoli au beurre” yielded to “buttered carrots.”

Although the courses themselves don’t differ much from Nixon’s, the return to English menus also signals a larger, Johnsonian effort by the Fords to present meals “representing everything American at the White House,” according to Betty Ford’s social secretary Maria Downs. Think of the 1970s as French food with American ingredients. Ford was fond of serving wild rice and Columbia River salmon along with the soufflés and flambés. By the end of 1974, all of the wines at a Ford state dinner were from the United States. At a dinner honoring Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky on Nov. 12, 1974, the Michigander even served a wine from Michigan’s Tabor Hill Winery. It was the first Wolverine State wine ever served at a White House state dinner and would remain the only Michigan wine until Barack Obama served one in 2016.

* This includes a March 12, 1974, state dinner for King Hussein of Jordan, which Ford hosted in Nixon’s place. The data do not include menus from three state dinners: President Walter Scheel of West Germany, June 16, 1975; Prime Minister Takeo Miki of Japan, Aug. 5, 1975; and the emperor and empress of Japan, Oct. 2, 1975. The menus could not be found by the Gerald R.  Ford Presidential Library and Museum.

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Jimmy Carter

January 20, 1977 - January 20, 1981 | 38 State Dinners

If historians judged presidents purely on their culinary performance, Jimmy Carter would be ranked one of the all-time greats. Not only did he host more state dinners in a single year than any other president—16 in 1977—but on Sept. 7 of that year he also hosted a state dinner with the most guests of honor in history, honoring 27 different Latin American countries in recognition of the United States signing the treaties transferring ownership of the Panama Canal. His state dinner in March 1979 to honor the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was the largest ever given by the White House: 1,360 guests. The food on both occasions was the epitome of a fancy dinner at the time—Maine lobster en belle-vue and roast saddle of veal with a selection of fresh vegetables for the former, and Columbia River salmon in aspic and roast sirloin of beef with spring vegetables at the latter.

There was a solid political reason for this flurry of events. Carter was constantly on the defensive during his presidency, facing a country that believed itself to be in terminal decline and perceived as a weak and uncertain leader. Around the halfway point of his presidency, the Democratic Party grew nervous. “[Democrats] were so afraid of … the tenuous character of his administration,” Seale said. “The Democratic Party began paying for a whole lot of entertainments. Huge things that the party would pay for … to pep him up.”

Carter’s bridge-building efforts were another reason for the whirl at the table. He hosted then-Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping in January 1979 after granting the People’s Republic of China full diplomatic recognition for the first time. Talk about bridge-building—he even invited Richard Nixon as a guest! Two months later, Carter hosted a state dinner honoring Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin, in honor of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty he’d just helped negotiate at Camp David.

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By the time Carter left office he had hosted 38 state dinners. With dinners so frequent that some occurred within two or three days of each other, the Carter menus offered few surprises. The most significant departure from other state dinners of the era was the appearance every so often of a Georgia dish. It’s hard to imagine Nixon serving the glazed Virginia ham with brandied peaches as Carter did at the dinner honoring West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on July 13, 1977.

The late 1970s saw so much growth in the American wine market that by 1980, sales surpassed that of hard liquor. That passion for wine did not translate into the White House. Never a big drinker himself, Carter served wines that were carryovers from Gerald Ford—except for the bargain-bin Paul Masson wines, which were served four times. The Orson Welles ad campaign of the late 1970s clearly had an effect.

Contact sheets show state dinners hosted by the Carters—for the president of Venezuela on June 28, 1977 (top two rows), and the Shah of Iran on Nov. 15, 1977. (National Archives)

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Ronald Reagan

January 20, 1981 - January 20, 1989 | 52* State Dinners

For fans of state dinners, the Reagan administration was morning in America. Ronald Reagan’s state dinners combined Kennedy’s glamour with Johnson’s output. The Gipper was three state dinners shy of beating LBJ’s record, but 52 is still four times as many as those held by George W. Bush or Barack Obama. And no other president can boast of a state dinner where John Travolta danced with Princess Diana. At their dinner* in November 1985, the prince and princess of Wales were served lobster mousseline, glazed chicken capsicum, brown rice, garden vegetables, jicama salad, and a peach sorbet basket with Champagne sauce and petits fours for dessert.

How were the Reagans able to throw so many glamorous state dinners? It helped that first lady Nancy Reagan hired Jackie Kennedy’s former White House social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, as a consultant. The historian William Seale offered another possible explanation. “Maybe it was because of their past in film, where everything has to be so immaculately detailed to save money to do a movie, but that’s the way [Nancy Reagan] did it,” he said. “They were not tolerant of mistakes. And everything went as they planned it.” The Reagans may have been fairly new to Washington, but thanks to their Hollywood backgrounds they were no strangers to a good party. And the 1980s weren’t short on movie-like drama, either. Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in 1983 and narrowly avoided a nuclear standoff the following year. By December 1987, tensions had thawed, and the White House even threw a state dinner for Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Still, by 1981 it was apparent that the state dinner food was becoming an archaism. “Antiquated cookery,” as Frank Ruta put it. Nancy Reagan, taking a more hands-on approach than most first ladies, tried to freshen up menu selections that had now been used for more than 20 years. Ruta, who served as executive sous-chef during the Reagan years, recalled that Nancy Reagan relied on the advice of, remarkably, her interior decorator, Ted Graber. Although not a chef, Graber was “more of a foodie than what is now considered a foodie,” Ruta recalled. New dishes were introduced, such as pita bread—served at Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Fraser’s dinner in June 1981—and nasturtium salads—served to Brazilian President José Sarney in September 1986. Mousse was served more frequently as a lighter alternative to the traditionally heavy French courses.

The Reagans hired David Berkley, a wine expert based in Sacramento, to consult on wine selections. Berkley introduced several new California wineries to the White House cellars, with the visible result that the drinks were noticeably more diverse than in the 1970s. Chenin blanc took a backseat to chardonnay, and the hot California climate-friendly zinfandel and merlot appeared for the first time. Thanks to Berkley’s selections, Reagan may well have had the best taste in wine of any president. Nixon would likely disagree. Then again, Nixon wouldn’t have shared his wine.

* We counted data from a total of 49 dinners, including the dinner for Prince Charles and Princess Diana on Nov. 9, 1985. The following state dinner menus are currently unavailable or incomplete: Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Aug. 5, 1981; Luis Herrera Campíns of Venezuela, Nov. 17, 1981; Sandro Pertini of Italy, March 25, 1982; and Moussa Traore of Mali, Oct. 6, 1988.

* It technically wasn’t a state dinner, but it was close enough.

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George H.W. Bush

January 20, 1989 - January 20, 1993 | 32 State Dinners

Forget the “Me Decade.” For the White House, the 1980s might as well have been the Mousse Decade. For George H.W. Bush, every course deserved its own mousse.

At least there was something decent to drink to go with it, as long as you’re a fan of chardonnay. When it came to alcohol, Bush was a beneficiary of the 1980s chardonnay boom, with the drink edging out sparkling wine on his menus as prices went down and interest in wine—especially American wine—spiked. But otherwise, there was no great innovation during the Bush era; as in much else. Like Eisenhower’s state dinners, the elder Bush’s 32 such gatherings were a transitional phase between eras of state dinner cuisine. Under Executive Chef Hans Raffert, who had started at the White House as a sous-chef in 1969, the Bushes continued introducing some new ideas for the increasingly dated menus, following the Reagans’ example—but the results feel a little like a new patch on an old pair of pants. King Hassan II of Morocco was served cold pumpkin souffle with crystallized ginger and blackberry sauce for dessert in September 1991. But at that same dinner, the king was also served medallions of salmon in aspic with caviar sauce.

Yes, somehow aspic survived the Cold War.

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“Hans Raffert was a very nice person, but cooking-wise he was very old-fashioned,” said Pierre Chambrin, who began serving as executive chef in August 1992 after Raffert decided to retire. Chambrin, who came to the White House as a sous-chef in 1990, loved working for the Bushes. “Nice people, lot of class.”

Like Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush had been part of Washington culture for a long time and loved to entertain. He hosted perennial guest Queen Elizabeth in May 1991, her first state dinner since Gerald Ford. This time, the queen was served medallions of Maine lobster and cucumber mousse with aurora sauce, crown roast of lamb, galettes fines herbes, potato croquettes, bouquets of vegetables, watercress and Belgian endive salad, St. Andre and chevre cheeses, and pistachio marquise with fresh raspberries for dessert. The dessert, created by the longtime Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, featured marzipan cobblestones topped with a 10-inch, dark chocolate carriage filled with (you guessed it) mousse.

The dinner must have been good, though. The sausages the queen normally brought with her on visits abroad stayed home, the Washington Post reported.

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Bill Clinton

January 20, 1993 - January 20, 2001 | 32* State Dinners

The generation gap between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton came down to two Mexican state dinners. When Bush hosted President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in October 1989, the menu featured supreme of sole in Champagne, roast saddle of veal farci, marquise potatoes, spinach timbale, and a watercress and Belgian endive salad. For President Ernesto Zedillo’s state dinner six Octobers later, guests dined on spiced partridge breast, toasted pear and poppyseed bread, acorn squash with smoked chili sauce, a salad of fall field greens, and a sweet corn and tequila ice cream mold with lime sauce for dessert.

Six years? It might as well have been 60.

Listening to the advice of her friend the “California cuisine” pioneer Alice Waters, first lady Hillary Clinton hired the American chef Walter Scheib in April 1994 and instigated the biggest culinary shift in the White House in over 30 years. With the help of Scheib, the Clinton administration highlighted regional American cuisine in the menus with simpler, fresher ingredients. Aspic was finally, finally out; field greens and fava beans were in. The cheese course was nixed, bringing state dinners down to four courses. As with other game-changing presidential menus, Clinton’s state dinner menus were a political message: American food is diverse, healthy, and on the same level as any other country’s cuisine—even France’s.

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Emphasis on “healthy.” Because the low-fat diet craze was booming in the 1990s, and because Bill Clinton was notorious for his love of McDonald’s and enchiladas, Hillary Clinton pushed hard for “low fat” meals. Beef was served only twice at Clinton’s 32 state dinners. His official dinner for South Korean President Kim Young-sam in November 1993 offered ginger-almond ice cream made with 2 percent milk to keep the fat content down. Indeed, one reason Scheib got the job was because his predecessor, Pierre Chambrin, was reluctant to cook the low-fat cuisine desired by Hillary. French food is… not exactly low-fat. “[Chambrin] is an expert in French cuisine. That’s his specialty and his vocation. That’s not what we serve here at the White House,” said White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers upon Chambrin’s departure in March 1994.

Chambrin told FP that 99 percent of what he bought was local, organic American food. He maintains that these changes were a political move, not a result of Clinton’s own foodie tastes. “Hillary Clinton don’t know nothing about food … she was une personne political,” he said. “She did it because it was popular at this time. If people said to eat butter, she would have been telling everyone to eat butter.”

Foodies… calculating politicos… either way, as was evident from their 1995 dinner with Zedillo, the Clintons pushed state dinners to reach further outward—for inspiration from the guest of honor’s country—while simultaneously reaching inward, toward America’s own culinary strengths. A state dinner with a sweet corn and tequila ice cream mold? Eisenhower would have thrown his soup bowl in disgust (or at least asked whether it could be garnished with mint gelatin). But the time was right for change. The baby boomers, who finally had a president to call their own, were the first generation to come of age during the hippie idealism of the 1960s and after Johnson lifted the U.S. immigration quotas in 1965. That landmark decision, combined with Reagan’s immigration reform of 1986, ensured the country’s demographics and taste buds were slowly becoming more diverse than ever before.

“The Clintons, a minority choice, were elected to offer ‘change.’ So the cuisine, too, must change,” wrote a skeptical Keith Botsford for the Independent of London in 1994. “The White House scene will bear watching. … Maybe the Clintons will at last define what US cuisine is. Or which American cooking is most American. That would be no mean achievement.”

* This includes some dinners technically categorized as “official dinners,” because for the first year in office the Clintons purposefully avoided state dinners. They were too “Bush” for a change president.

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George W. Bush

January 20, 2001 - January 20, 2009 | 13 State Dinners

George W. Bush never possessed the makings of a prolific state dinner host. He liked to go to bed early and, unlike his father, he was never crazy about pomp and circumstance in the first place. He preferred more intimate gatherings, such as bringing heads of state to his ranch in Crawford, Texas. His taste in food was at times as questionable as the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—according to then-Executive Chef Walter Scheib’s memoir, Bush insisted that any hot dogs prepared in the White House should be steamed and never grilled. And, thanks to youthful problems with alcohol, he didn’t drink—meaning that the social lubricant that helped other presidents endure yet another formal event was out. That might help explain why he only gave 13 state dinners.

But whether Bush was willing or not, thanks to first lady Laura Bush his presidency still made state dinner history. She fired Scheib in February 2005 and replaced him six months later with the first-ever woman and first person of color to become executive chef: Cristeta Comerford, who is Filipina-American. Scheib wrote in his 2007 memoir, White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen, that he left because Laura Bush wanted to make her mark on the culinary scene. That may be true, but the Bushes were also not adventurous eaters. “Flavorful, generous, and identifiable,” were the first lady’s culinary criteria, according to Scheib. “I found myself thinking with profound nostalgia of Mrs. Clinton and her passion for inclusion, her interest in learning about and trying new foods, and her desire to show off her nation’s best to visitors foreign and domestic,” he wrote.

“Walter Scheib was not a very good cook,” Chambrin said. “George W. Bush didn’t like the food.”

Whatever the reason for his ouster, many of the Clinton administration’s innovations to the state dinner menus persisted. Comerford previously served as Scheib’s assistant chef, and the rest of his staff continued unchanged. Her first state dinner as executive chef, which honored Prince Charles and his new wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles, on Nov. 2, 2005 (no Travolta this time), included wild rice pancakes, glazed parsnips and young carrots, crispy rock shrimp with celery broth, chartreuse ice cream with red and green grape sauce, and a main course of medallions of buffalo tenderloin.

Wait, what? Buffalo?

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Previously served only once before at a state dinner (by Carter, always ahead of his time), Bush brought the most American of meats back not once but twice—Mexican President Vicente Fox was served Colorado bison (from a state that voted for Bush in both elections) at Bush’s first state dinner, on Sept. 5, 2001. Bison exploded in popularity in the 2000s, thanks to the recovering population, the meat’s purported health benefits versus beef (leaner, fewer antibiotics), and an idea concocted by Ted Turner.

Bush was also probably the last president to host our old friend Queen Elizabeth, the world’s single longest-lasting head of state. (Over the last decade, age has cut down on her travel plans, though she hosted both Obama and Trump in the U.K.) At her May 7, 2007, state dinner, the queen was served dover sole almondine; saddle of spring lamb with chanterelle sauce; chive pizzelle with American caviar; roasted artichokes, pequillo peppers, and olives; spring pea soup with fernleaf lavender; an arugula, Savannah mustard, and mint romaine salad with Champagne dressing; and “Rose Blossoms” for dessert, which were pulled-sugar roses surrounded by tiny white cakes.

The queen must not have remembered her previous encounter with Bush the younger, which occurred at the state dinner hosted by his father. An account from the Washington Post in May 1991 reveals he was given strict instructions by George H.W. and Barbara Bush not to talk to the queen. Bush engaged with her anyway. After admiring his cowboy boots engraved with “God Save the Queen,” she asked whether he was considered the black sheep in his family.

“I guess so,” he replied.

“All families have them.”

“Who’s yours?” Bush asked.

“Don’t answer that!” Barbara Bush interjected, appearing out of the blue. No word on whether the future president was grounded without dinner.

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Barack Obama

January 20, 2009 - January 20, 2017 | 13 State Dinners

Barack and Michelle Obama’s state dinners encapsulate the chaos and information overload of the 2010s. Both were foodies and frequent patrons of the Chicago and D.C. restaurant scenes, and few presidents and first ladies had ever experimented so boldly with the state dinner formula. Unlike previous administrations, their state dinner menus share almost nothing in common with one another, skipping merrily between styles.

For a May 13, 2016, state dinner honoring Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland, Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford created a multicourse tribute to New Nordic cuisine with an American twist. Chicken and waffles and venison tartare with truffle vinaigrette somehow occupied the same menu space. Because New Nordic emphasizes locally foraged ingredients, one canapé even consisted of baby radishes impaled on pieces of wood from a tree in the White House backyard.

Not even the chefs stayed constant—an unprecedented move in the White House. The celebrity chefs Marcus Samuelsson, Rick Bayless, Anita Lo, and Mario Batali each had a turn in the White House kitchen. Bayless, a Chicago chef associated with various Mexican restaurants, was recruited to prepare the state dinner honoring Mexican President Felipe Calderón on May 19, 2010. Calderón was served herb green ceviche of Hawaiian opah, Oregon wagyu beef in Oaxacan black mole, black bean tamalon, grilled green beans, a sesame-cilantro cracker, and a jicama salad with oranges, grapefruit, and pineapple and citrus vinaigrette. Dessert consisted of a chocolate-cajeta tart, toasted homemade marshmallows, graham cracker crumble, and goat cheese ice cream. Not a single dish—including the grilled green beans—was included on another state dinner menu.

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One of the few threads tying Obama state dinners together is their use of the White House kitchen garden. Alice Waters had been arguing for it since Clinton’s inauguration, but it took until 2009 for Michelle Obama to finally plant a 1,100-square-foot organic vegetable garden on the South Lawn, in a tribute to the localism that had come to become such a dominant part of the American food scene. The garden appeared in more than one state dinner salad, including the White House Garden chopped salad with White House honey gastrique served to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on June 7, 2011. Dishes like the grilled cannon of Colorado lamb with garlic fried milk for Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015 didn’t exactly jive with Michelle Obama’s crusade against childhood obesity, but the White House’s continued emphasis on fresh, local ingredients ensured Obama state dinners were more heart-friendly than an evening with, say, Harry S. Truman.

Selected wines were just as diverse as the food. Oftentimes the provided wine made reference to the guest of honor’s country. A Chinese rice wine—Shaoxing—was among the wines served to Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sept. 25, 2015. It was the first Chinese wine ever served at a state dinner. The White House attitude toward rice wine had come a long way from 1933, when sake was among the many gifts delivered from around the globe after Prohibition was repealed, according to Fields, the former White House butler. “Very little of it was palatable for the table,” he wrote. He mixed it along with the other gift wines into spiked punches for receptions instead.

No wonder Time magazine nicknamed President Obama “America’s Eater-in-Chief.” But like his predecessor, Obama hosted a mere 13 state dinners over his eight years in office.

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Donald Trump

January 20, 2017 - Present | 2 State Dinners

President Donald Trump’s April 24, 2018, state dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron lacked celebrity chefs or tree bark, but—perhaps surprisingly—the menu showed good taste and followed the “American ingredients with at least one flavor from the guest of honor’s country” formula set in the 1990s. Thus Carolina Gold rice jambalaya was paired with a goat cheese gateau with tomato jam.

The menu was not what we’ve come to expect from a president deemed by the New York Times to be “the nation’s fast food president.” It’s more sophisticated fare than the food Trump served China’s Xi Jinping at an April 6, 2017, dinner at his Mar-a-Lago resort, for example. That dinner featured dry-aged prime New York strip steak, a Caesar salad, and chocolate cake with vanilla sauce and dark chocolate sorbet. Trump had even vowed on Fox News in 2015 to serve Xi a “double-sized Big Mac” in lieu of throwing him a state dinner—a campaign promise tragically never delivered. Yet Trump followed up on his fast-food pledges with his infamous spread for the Clemson University football team during the government shutdown, when Trump dipped shallowly into his own pockets to provide 300 hamburgers.

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Trump’s concept of food, as with many other things, throws much of the philosophy established at the White House over the past 25 years out the window. Not that Trump is the first president to enjoy McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Ask Bill Clinton—or Harry S. Truman, who literally served fried chicken and turkey at state dinners. But more than any other president, Trump wears his lowbrow taste in food as a badge of honor. Although the United States today puts the successful businessman on a bigger and more beautiful pedestal than during the New Deal era, one thing that’s remained the same is the country’s disdain for the elite. Such is the Trump paradox: a billionaire real estate speculator from New York City whose widest margins of victory in the 2016 election were in Wyoming and West Virginia, and whose favorite food is well-done steak with ketchup.

Which is one reason why Trump can’t be seen as an open advocate of state dinners. Flashy parties with over 350 people, famous celebrities, extravagant meal creations, and tents on the White House Lawn that “look like hell”? Those are for liberal elitists like Obama and Hillary Clinton. If Ronald Reagan were president today, it’s likely his 52 extravagant, star-studded state dinners would paint him as an out-of-touch elitist, too.

But when it came time to throw a proper state dinner, little of that seemed to matter. First lady Melania Trump opted to respect recent White House traditions instead—much to Macron’s relief, one can imagine. It says something about the symbolic power of the White House state dinner that fast food was not selected as the food representative of the best the United States has to offer. Nevertheless, a few subtle changes helped distance Trump’s first state dinner from Obama’s. The guest size was only 150 people, most of the guests were Republican allies, and the menu was reduced to three courses. It was a decidedly more modest affair. Eleanor Roosevelt would have been proud.

President Donald Trump speaks during a state dinner for French President Emmanuel Macron on April 24, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

About This Feature

All the Presidents’ Meals is the product of extensive research at presidential libraries, the National Archives, and Library of Congress, as well as interviews with historians, food writers, and former White House chefs. Obtaining the state dinner menus presented unique challenges. Some presidential libraries post the state dinner menus on their respective websites, such as John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton required hiring archivists and research assistants to find the menus and scan photographs. Hickey ended up viewing the menu collections for Ronald Reagan in person by visiting the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in July 2018. Some menu information was also obtained through press coverage of the state dinners, especially from the Style section of the Washington Post.

Credits:  Editing by James Palmer and Sharon Weinberger. Copy-editing by Nina Goldman. Design by Lori Kelley, Adam Griffiths, and C.K. Hickey. Development by C.K. Hickey and Andrew Baughman. Animation by Billy Buntin. Special thanks to Elizabeth Hansen, Jason Kaplan, Eduardo Medrano, Jennifer Newby, Zachary Roberts, Sydney Soderberg, E. Kirsten Andersen Thomas, Alison Wheelock, and Tammy Williams for their assistance in obtaining the state dinner menus.