Published November 24, 2009
WASHINGTON -- President Obama plans to have his cake and eat pumpkin pie too when he hosts his first White House state dinner Tuesday, providing the 320 guests expected to attend the lavish ceremony with fine dining from a top chef and entertainment by Oscar-winning musicians.
First lady Michelle Obama's staff, which has planned what could be Washington's hottest social event since the inauguration, has kept a tight lid on the details for the event in honor Indian Prime Minister Monmahon Singh and his wife.
But some elements, like the huge white tent going up on the South Lawn, couldn't remain secret for long. That alone means hundreds more people will be attending than if dinner had been scheduled indoors in the State Dining Room, which seats a maximum 140 guests.
Mrs. Obama also is bringing in a guest chef, award-winning Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant in New York City, to help the White House kitchen staff prepare the meal. Samuelsson was selected by social secretary Desiree Rogers and assistant chef Sam Kass.
The menu is heavy on vegetables, as is common in Indian meals, but also features a variety of California and Virginia wines. The courses include potato and eggplant salad and arugula from the White House garden with an onion seed vinaigrette, both accompanied by a 2008 Savingnon Blanc, from Modus Operandi in Napa Valley. A red lentil soup with fresh cheese will be paired with a 2006 Riesling from Brooks "Ara" in Wilamette Valley.
Roast potato dumplings with tomato chutney, chick peas and okra or green curry prawns with caramelized salsify with smoke collard greens and coconut aged basmati are the two entrees. They will be joined with a 2007 Granache from Beckman Vineyards in Santa Ynez.
A season pumpkin pie tart will be served with pear tatin, whipped cream and caramel sauce sparkling Chardonnay, Thibaut Janisson Brut, from Monticello, Virginia. All that will precede petits fours and coffee, cashew brittle, pecan pralines, passion fruit and vanilla gelees and chocolate dipped fruit
All the courses will be placed on historic china from previous White House collections, including service plates from the Eisenhower administration's 1955 New Castle, Pa.'s Castleton China, Trenton, N.J., Lenox from the Clinton service and dinner plates from George W. Bush Kinston, N.C., Lenox, collection which was a gift of the White House Acquisition Trust.
Centerpieces on the table will be "composed of flowers that are evocative of the classic American garden: hyrdrangea, garden roses, and sweet peas in a rich palette of deep plum, purple, and fuchsia," according to the first lady's office.
Oscar-winners Jennifer Hudson and A.R. Rahman will be the headline entertainers. Hudson won an Academy Award for her role in "Dreamgirls;" Rahman won two for the music in "Slumdog Millionaire."
The grand White House dinner for Singh marks a departure from the ones held by Obama's predecessor, George. W. Bush, who notably hosted Singh at a dinner in 2005. The Bushes rarely held formal state functions.
"In the Bush administration, things were smaller, more intimate, which is what she wanted," Anita McBride, former chief of staff of Laura Bush, told Fox News, referencing her ex-boss.
"It has been awhile since we have seen an event like this," she said.
The basic White House dinner has been tweaked over the years to suit guests, invited and uninvited. A driving rain drove President John F. Kennedy's guests to the East Room, scuttling months of planning for Mozart on the South Lawn for Indian President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. With nearly 700 guests in a tent on the lawn, the India state dinner was one of the largest such events of Bill Clinton's presidency.
Here's a look back at the dinners for Indian leaders, according to news reports.
HARRY S. TRUMAN:
October 1949: Truman's dinner with Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, was notable because it was not at the White House. The mansion was being repaired and Truman and first lady Bess Truman had decamped to Blair House, the government guest house across the street.
Five courses were served at Blair to a smaller-than-usual dinner party, including soup julienne; fillet of sole with tyrolienne sauce; roast turkey with oyster dressing, gravy and cranberry sauce; gingerale and peach salad, shredded lettuce, French dressing and toasted Triscuits.
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER:
December 1956: Instead of a lavish White House dinner, Eisenhower went the low-key route and treated Nehru to a Sunday lunch of oysters on the half shell and roast leg of lamb. They were joined by first lady Mamie Eisenhower and Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, who had accompanied her father. The next day, Nehru and Eisenhower rode together to the president's Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farmhouse for private talks and an overnight stay.
JOHN F. KENNEDY:
November 1961: At Nehru's request, Kennedy dispensed with the pomp of the customary dinner for dozens and held a smaller, black-tie affair, apparently so the two leaders could continue their talks. Only about 14 people were at the table.
June 1963: A state dinner two years later for Radhakrishnan was notable for featuring the first live orchestra performance ever at the White House. Until then, taped music had been used. But Mother Nature dampened the carefully planned entertainment program when a driving rain drove guests inside to the East Room for the finale to Act 1 of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," which had been scheduled for the sprawling South Lawn. Inside, it was standing-room only as guests rubbed shoulders and shouted their "bravos."
LYNDON B. JOHNSON:
March 1966: Johnson held a dinner for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi the year she assumed the office her father had held for 17 years. Dressed in a traditional sari, she enjoyed a main course of sliced pheasant breast.
November 1971: Five years after Johnson welcomed her, Gandhi was Nixon's guest at the third White House dinner of the week. Seated at an E-shaped table in the State Dining Room, more than 100 guests were served a French-inspired menu of poached dumpling of pike in puff pastry, supreme of pheasant veronique, asparagus in melted butter and, for dessert, praline mousse and petit fours.
July 1982: For the third White House dinner of Gandhi's tenure, Reagan served seafood neptune, lamb wrapped in golden pastry and frozen black cherry bombe, in the State Dining Room. Gandhi wore a sari in raspberry silk; first lady Nancy Reagan matched her in a sari-inspired, one-shoulder, peach chiffon dress with silver trim. Two years later, in October 1984, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards.
June 1985: Gandhi was succeeded by her son, Rajiv, and he visited Reagan less than a year after his mother was killed. Reagan also treated him to a White House dinner: crab and cucumber mousse, breasts of Cornish hen and chocolate boxes with fruit sorbets and peach champagne sauce.
September 2000: Clinton toasted a renewed U.S.-India friendship at the largest dinner of his presidency honoring one person, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Nearly 700 people ate in a tent on the South Lawn, beneath crystal chandeliers at tables decorated with hydrangeas, cream china and gold candles. Their feast included a main course of wild Copper river salmon with red kuri squash and rice bean ragout. Dessert included mango and banner lotus, litchis and raspberry sauce, honey almond squares and chocolate coconut bars.
GEORGE W. BUSH:
July 2005: Singh was the honoree at one of the few gala White House dinners during Bush's presidency. The chef paid tribute to India with chilled asparagus soup and lemon creme, pan-roasted halibut and ginger-carrot butter, and basmati rice with pistachio nuts and currants. Chocolate lotus blossoms and a trio of mango, chocolate-cardamom and cashew ice creams were served for dessert.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.