Every presidential administration encounters countless decisions that affect how the U.S. is seen on the international stage, as well as by its own people -- and deciding what’s on its dinner menu is no exception.
In his recent piece for Foreign Policy, “All the Presidents’ Meals,” Christopher Hickey traces 86 years of diplomacy and changing cultural trends through the lens of the White House state dinner menu.
For example, he argues that Eleanor Roosevelt’s austere, Great Depression-era chicken and lima bean dinners, which rang up to 10 cents a plate, where a reflection of the hardship in the country, as well as a reflection of the trend of viewing food as an ends to nutrition rather than a means towards exciting flavors.
Then came along the post-WWII economic boom in the US and the cosmopolitan Kennedys, with Jackie creating the position of the White House Executive Chef and hiring a French man for the job, which set the tone for the next 30 years. And then the Clintons initiated the modern shift towards highlighting American farm-to-table cuisine, with a diplomatic nod to the culture of the guest of honor -- for example, rice wine served to President Xi Jinping during a dinner with the Obamas.
How have various First Ladies used White House state dinners as political and diplomatic tools? And what does the history of these dinners say about how Americans have viewed the world and how we want it to view us?
Frank Ruta, former White House first family chef and executive sous-chef (1979-1991); he tweets @FrankRuta