That time FDR served hot dogs to the king, and three other strange state dinner facts

Tonight marks the seventh state dinner of the Obama administration, where he'll charm French President Francois Hollande with caviar, quail eggs, and 12 different kinds of potatoes. All anyone can talk about, however, is Hollande's sudden plans to attend the dinner solo, thanks to his tangled love life. Bloomberg interviewed an international relations professor at Boston University about the gossipy undercurrents of the day's political bash: “I feel sorry for the protocol office of the White House. They have to come up with every contingency, and this is one they probably couldn’t have anticipated."

Since Obama holds state dinners so rarely compared to his predecessors, media outlets are drowning the Internet in factoids from state dinners past. Here are a sample of strange state dinner deep cuts that haven't got quite as much attention yet.

4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once served hot dogs at a state dinner.

On June 11, 1939, FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt were hosting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Hyde Park, their home in Hudson Valley. It was the first time a reigning British monarch had ever set foot in its former colony. And, to celebrate such a momentous occasion, the president served the royals a dinner of hot dogs and beer (perhaps this was also the first White House beer summit?), which the visiting leaders enjoyed while eating with the cooks, gardeners, and other staffers of the Roosevelt estate. FDR's mother was not pleased with her son's antics. The queen had no idea how to eat a hot dog. The New York Times was immensely amused.

Screenshot of New York Times, June 12, 1939
Screenshot of New York Times, June 12, 1939

According to Mental Floss, it was immensely fortunate that the weather was nice during the state dinner. The menu, which also featured strawberry shortcake and smoked turkey, shows that hot dogs would be served "weather permitting." Fifty years later, Bush held another state dinner for visitors from Britain. The New York Times called Daisy Suckley, FDR's 98-year-old cousin — who was at the '39 dinner — to recount the tale of the diplomatic hot dogs. ''I was sitting two tables away. I saw them bring a silver dish with two little hot dogs on it to the King and Queen. But I was not near enough to see whether they ate them. It's all so silly.''

Other presidents have taken the simpler route when international leaders come to the United States. When Chancellor of West Germany Ludwig Erhard came to visit LBJ, they went to his ranch in Texas and ate barbecue. One White House official said, "There will be rare, medium and well-done foreign policy in Texas this weekend." Tony Blair took George Bush out for fish and chips. In 2010, Barack Obama took Russian president Dmitry Medvedev out to Arlington for hamburgers.

3. Either Gerald Ford or his chef absolutely loved wild rice.

Because it was on so many state dinner menus during his time in the White House.

  • When Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti of Italy came to visit, they served cornish hens with wild rice.
  • When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel came to visit, they served roast duckling and wild rice amandine.
  • When Chancellor Bruno Kreisky of Austria came to visit, they served pheasant and wild rice.
  • When Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany came to visit, they served roast duckling with glazed apples and wild rice.
  • When King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain came to visit, they served suprême of duckling and wild rice almandine.
  • When Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan came to visit, they served suprême of pheasant Véronique and wild rice.
  • When President Anwar Sadat of Egypt came to visit, they served suprême of pheasant Smitane and wild rice.
  • When Prime Minister Liam Cosgrave of Ireland came to visit, they served royal squab Véronique and wild rice.
  • When Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Great Britain came to visit, they served suprême of royal squab and wild rice.

It seems unlikely that a president will ever hold state dinners as boring sounding as Gerald Ford's ever again.

2. That time George H.W. Bush threw up during a state dinner — and CNN almost reported he was dead.

When George H.W. Bush went to Japan in 1992, he had a pretty bad case of the flu. And when he sat down to dinner with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa on January 8, he fainted and vomited, and his host "cradled his head for some minutes until Mr. Bush was strong enough to get up on his own." When reporters barraged the White House with questions, Bush's press secretary Marlin Fitzwater responded, "The President is human; he gets sick." According to Barbara Bush's press secretary, "He said to the Prime Minister, 'Why don't you roll me under the table and I'll sleep it off while you finish the dinner."

CNN, no stranger to momentarily breaking false news, almost reported that the president was dead after receiving a phony tip from someone claiming to be the president's doctor ... and who was in truth just a 71-year-old man from Idaho. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1992, "'It's a perennial hazard on TV these days when instantaneous news is reported as it is happening,' observed retired Los Angeles newscaster Maury Green. 'A newspaper has a little more time to check, but a TV network or local station is just more susceptible to a hoax than other media.'" Maury Green would have loved Twitter.

1. George Washington planned awful dinner parties

Although the first state dinner featuring foreign dignitaries was hosted by Ulysses S. Grant on December 12, 1874 (he invited the King of the Sandwich Islands, later to be known as Hawaii, for a visit), plenty of previous presidents hosted domestic dignitaries at their home. George Washington often hosted friends and politicians at the "Presidential Palace" in New York. According to people forced to attend them regularly, "they were remarkably dull affairs. The host rarely had much to say, and his face and manner were not as a rule particularly cheerful ... while other people at his table conversed he would keep tip-tapping on the edge of the table with a fork or spoon — a curious habit he had." He also refused to suffer latecomers. "He was always punctual and delayed dinner parties for only five minutes to accommodate late guests. He had a ready excuse for latecomers: He blamed the start of dinner on his cook who "never asks whether the company has come, but whether the hour has come." Whatever potential snafus or controversies could happen at tonight's state dinner, at least it's relatively safe to say that Joe Biden won't be composing percussive symphonies on the table. Which, now that we mention it, is rather sad.

 

Must-reads:

"Obama delays a health-law mandate again" — Juliet Eilperin and Amy Goldman, The Washington Post

"House GOP homes in on debt-ceiling plan tied to military pension benefits" — Robert Costa and Paul Kane, The Washington Post

"Frustrated by Karzai, U.S. Shifts Afghanistan Exit Plans" — Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes

"De Blasio Plans a Minimum Wage and City ID Cards" — Michael M. Grynbaum and Kirk Semple

 

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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