CAPITAL CULTURE: 60 years of US meals for India

AP News
Posted: Nov 24, 2009 3:32 PM

In the history of U.S.-India relations, there's been plenty of broken bread and even a few crumbled Triscuits.

American presidents have entertained India's leaders over fine wine and even finer food for the past 60 years _ at grand White House dinners with hundreds of guests in black-tie, at an intimate Sunday lunch and away from Washington's prying eyes near a storied Civil War battlefield.

With his first White House state dinner on Tuesday, President Barack Obama is putting his stamp on the tradition the White House uses to honor foreign leaders.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is coming for a state visit and all that it entails _ a pomp-filled welcome ceremony that was brought inside the White House because of rainy weather, private time with Obama, a joint news conference and, in the evening, the state dinner, to be held outside for 320 people.

First lady Michelle Obama gave an afternoon preview of what's sure to be Washington's hottest social event since the inauguration. Even the smallest details were fraught with symbolism. For her preview appearance, for example, the first lady wore a skirt by Rachel Roy, who is Indian.

Guests were to dine at tables for 10 in a huge tent on the South Lawn, its walls decorated with magnolia branches, which are native both to India and the United States.

The deep purple flower arrangements were designed to pay homage to the state bird of India, the peacock.

The service plates used for the dinner were purchased in the tenure of Dwight Eisenhower, the first president to visit India after its independence.

The entertainment lineup was topped by Oscar-winners Jennifer Hudson and A.R. Rahman, two of the top performers from contemporary American and Indian music. Hudson won an Academy Award for her role in "Dreamgirls"; Rahman won two for the music in "Slumdog Millionaire."

The first lady brought in award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant in New York City, to help the White House kitchen staff prepare the largely vegetarian meal. The culinary lineup included potato and egg plant salad, red lentil soup, and roasted potato dumplings or green curry prawns.

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. George W. Bush's dinner in 2005 was notable because he held so few overall.

Here's a look back at the dinners for Indian leaders, according to news reports.


October 1949: Truman's dinner with Nehru, India's first prime minister, was notable because it wasn't 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; ginger ale and peach salad, shredded lettuce, French dressing and toasted Triscuits.


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, Pa., farmhouse for private talks and an overnight stay.


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."


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.

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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.


July 2005: Prime Minister Manmohan 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.