The Fox State Dinner: Pass the Chipotle, Mr. President...

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The last time the Bush family hosted a Mexican president at a White House state dinner, an international incident was narrowly avoided. Former first lady Barbara Bush picks up the story from her memoir: "We almost had a real crisis during the dinner for the new president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas. The pastry chef had described the dessert on the menu as 'Mexican Fantasy.' Just as the platters were leaving the kitchen to make a dramatic entrance into the State Dining Room, Laurie Firestone, George's social secretary, noticed that the chef had constructed an adobe house out of edible sweets, filled with ice cream and surrounded by a fence and flowers.

"It was stunning. But leaning against the wall of the house was a little candy Mexican boy taking a siesta with a sombrero over his eyes. Just the unfair image that this young bright Harvard graduate was trying to erase about Mexico. So as each platter went by, Laurie plucked off the sleeping boy. It would have been insulting. She saved the day for her country, but the next morning had to face the pastry chef who had labored so long over that glorious dessert."

This time around, there are unlikely to be any sombrero-clad boys gracing the desserts or mariachi bands serenading the diners. Keeping mum about the menu until the last minute, the White House did inform the media early on that Tex Mex would not be served. And while that may been intended to assuage fears that President George W. Bush's southwestern tastes would come to dominate state functions, the truth is that serving fajitas (or perhaps some more esteemed Mexican entrée) to a visiting Mexican leader would not be beyond the realm of probability in light of recent White House tradition. Because the State Dinner menu, for some bizarre reason, is often shaped more by the national cuisine of the guest than that of the host.

Consider the menu for President Clinton's last state dinner, for India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee: Darjeeling tea, smoked poussin, chilled green pea and cilantro soup, marble potatoes, wild copper river salmon, red kuri squash and rice, bean ragout, Swiss chard custard, garlic-chanterelle emulsion, young greens and herb salad, heirloom tomatoes, dry aged cheese blossom and 25-year-old sherry dressing. Followed by mango and banner lotus, litchis and raspberry sauce, "a majestic tiger's delight," honey almond squares and chocolate coconut bars. It's not Indian takeout, but there are strong hints of the guest's own national cuisine.

Similarly, the Clinton's served an exquisite lamb encrusted in pickled lemons to the visiting king of Morocco last year, and an African-spiced ginger-and-apricot glazed lamb to South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki.

Sometimes, it's simply a token nod — such as President Bush-senior's offering of California Beluga Sturgeon to President Boris Yeltsin in 1992, in a menu that was otherwise more French than anything else. Similarly when the Reagan White House faced the challenge of coming up with something distinctly Canadian to entertain Brian Mulroney in 1988: Smoked salmon and shrimp mousse with dilled cucumber sauce, before an otherwise distinctly Californian fest of roast loin of veal, tarragon sauce, puree of sweet red peppers, spring asparagus, watercress and radicchio salad.

Jimmy Carter adopted a no-frills approach designed to save taxpayer money by catering to an average of $4.50 a plate (by 1977 prices). So Canada's Pierre Trudeau got a simple surf and turf selection of Alaskan crab and roast lamb, while British Prime Minister James Callaghan was given the standard British Sunday lunch menu of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (what, no mushy peas?).

For the record, then, the Bush-Fox menu is a strongly crossover affair: Maryland crab and chorizo pozole served with summer vegetables, pumpkin seed-crusted bison with poblano whipped potato, fava bean and chanterelle ragout and apple chipotle sauce, salads of gold and red tomatoes and greens, followed by mango and coconut ice cream dome, peaches, raspberries, red chili pepper sauce and tequila sabayon. Hey, who needs Tex-Mex when you're eating chili pepper sauce with the ice cream.