Think diplomacy is tough? Try a White House state dinner

the white house — Preparations take months. No detail is overlooked, for this is perhaps the most evolved form of diplomacy: the state dinner.

As first lady Jill Biden prepares Wednesday to host her fifth state dinner, for Japan’s leader, she made it clear that every aesthetic detail — from the crystal on the tables, to the food on the White House china, the decor in the State Dining Room, the music and the fashion — drips with diplomatic significance. This dinner, she said in her preview of the event, makes frequent reference to Washington’s famous cherry trees, a gift from Japan more than a century ago.

“As guests sit among the field of flowers, glass and silk butterflies from both our countries will dance over the tables, their graceful flight a reminder that as our nations navigate the winds of change, we do so together as partners in peace and prosperity,” she said.

The White House Historical Association lays out the high stakes, saying a state dinner “showcases global power and influence and sets the tone for the continuation of dialogue between the president and the visiting head of state.”

Roxanne Roberts, a style writer for The Washington Post who has covered state dinners for more than 30 years, likens the dinner to “the frosting on an already-baked cake.”

“The state dinner is the least important part of a state visit, but it’s the thing that gets the most attention,” she told VOA. “… And it sends a signal to not only the government of that country, but the people of that country that you’re important to us. We care about you.”

That’s reflected in the numbers. Records journalists requested from the State Department, which foots the bill, show that Obama-era dinners cost U.S. taxpayers more than $500,000 each. More recent dinner tabs have not been released.

The food!

Imagine, Roberts said, a lavish wedding.

“It’s as if,” she said, “There was a marriage between the two countries and this is the wedding reception.”

The most obvious manifestation of that is on the plate.

White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford said this menu took her “a couple of months” to design and field test. Over three courses, guests will take a tour through her Japan-influenced creations, starting with a nod to the beloved American twist on sushi, the California roll. Her version is rendered as a salad of house-cured salmon with avocado, grapefruit, watermelon radish, cucumber and shiso leaf fritters.

Beef has been a fixture of past Biden dinners – the exception, of course, being the menu for the 2023 state dinner for Indian leader Narendra Modi, a strict vegetarian. Guests at this dinner, accordingly, will move on to a dry-aged rib eye steak with blistered shishito pepper butter, a fricassee of fava beans, morels and cipollini mushrooms and a sesame oil sabayon.

And for dessert: a salted caramel pistachio cake with matcha tea ganache, cherry ice cream and a drizzle of raspberry coulis.

“We wanted to bring a little bit of the cherry blossoms that are here on the Tidal Basin right here to our dessert, in order for everyone to enjoy the cherry blossoms that we enjoy every year,” said White House executive pastry chef Susie Morrison.

The wines, as is now custom, will be American.

“The days when only French wines were served at state dinners are long gone,” Roberts said. “Primarily because there were a lot of American vineyards who basically said, ‘Whoa, what about us? We’re cool.'”

The fripperies!

A temporary water feature in the White House’s Cross Hall will feature live koi — “symbols of friendship, peace, luck and perseverance,” Biden said.

Paul Simon will perform for guests. And the first couples are exchanging gifts that include a three-legged black walnut table made by a Japanese-American-owned company, a set of records autographed by American singer Billy Joel, and, as a personal touch, “a framed painting of the Yoshino cherry tree that she planted with Mrs. Kishida on the South Lawn last spring.”

The fashion!

Japan’s first lady, Yuko Kishida, garnered rave reviews for her choice to don India’s most culturally and technically fraught of garments, the sari, by draping and meticulously pleating five meters of green Kanjeevaram silk around her body for a summit of global leaders last year in New Delhi.

As she landed in Washington for her first state visit on Tuesday — but her second trip to meet the Bidens — she greeted the couple in a flowing dress of autumn-toned watercolor florals. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida wore suits, while the U.S. first lady donned a black dress with a deep keyhole neckline and razor-sharp tailoring.

These decisions, Roberts said, are “more than just going off to the store and going, ‘Oh, that’s pretty. I think I’ll wear that.'”

And the pressure, she said, falls disproportionately on the leaders’ spouses, who are traditionally women.

“They’re ambassadors for the clothing that they wear, the look that they have,” she said. “And so all of those, all of those elements play into all of these choices. You know, the guys have it easy – just throw on the tuxedo.”

… And finally, the faux pas!

What could possibly go wrong?

Surprisingly, not a lot, Roberts said, adding, “The truth of the matter is that these state dinners tend to go off without a hitch, because the planning is done so well.”

But, she said, mistakes sometimes happen.

She described a long-ago dinner for Mexico’s leader that featured “an elaborate desert that had a guy with a sombrero sleeping as a decorative piece.”

“It was meant to be charming and kind of fun, and it just hit wrong,” she said.

Another memorable slip, she said, was at a 2009 state dinner for India, where two uninvited reality stars crashed the event.

“The fact that two people were able to get in who were not supposed to be there was, in fact, a scandal,” she said.

The East Wing, in its preview, chose to focus instead on the positive, with White House social secretary Carlos Elizondo homing in on the theme while raising the stakes of this impossibly complex event.

“That’s what we hope to capture,” he said. “…the magic of spring in our lasting friendship, each detail chosen to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

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