On Thursday, President Obama will host South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the White House. It’s Obama’s fifth such dinner — Germany was in June — and so there’s the usual speculation over who will bring whom, wearing what, and how one knows if something is a state dinner or an official dinner. (One is for heads of state. The other is for heads of government.) It’s all painstaking protocol, an elaborate cultural production disguised as a nosh.
Can’t we do this via Skype?
The American state dinner is a relic: one of the remaining events at which everyone still puts on a ball gown. It’s ceremonial courtship conducted by a casual country; it’s a chance to show the world that we get it. We get what the salad fork is for. We get the handshake. Regardless of what one wears at one’s own kitchen table, one wants a president who knows how to wear a tux.
“The whole purpose of protocol and ritualized behavior is to avoid conflicts, because everyone knows how to behave,” says Judith Martin, better known to the world as Miss Manners.
And if protocol is abandoned?
“That’s how wars start.”
But how did state dinners start? Like the country itself, the concept is old, but not that old. It has gone from being a malleable supper to an immovable feast.
Having the neighbors over
For most of the 19th century, there were no state dinners, because there were no visiting heads of state. The ocean was big. The travel was long. No one wanted to visit America much, anyway, because in addition to being a really long sail, we didn’t even have the Statue of Liberty.
There were, however, “state dinners.”
Through the 1800s, lacking foreigners to entertain, the U.S. government entertained itself. The Washington social season launched every New Year’s Day with a White House open house, and throughout the winter, when the president hosted government types — which he did around four times a year — it was referred to as a state dinner. Supreme Court justices? State dinner! Members of Congress or the Cabinet? State dinner! A band was brought in, as were tropical plants or mosses, which were the height of aesthetic sensibility at the time. One newspaper account praised such a dinner for its “magnificent floral decorations and elaborate toilets,” which probably meant something different then.
Then, in February 1874, the Sandwich Islands elected a new monarch. King David Kalakaua decided to take a trip around the world, starting with the United States. He arrived in December. There was — because this is what official food consumption was now called — a state dinner. You can see an etching of the event: King Kalakaua in white tie and tails, appraising a long banquet table.
There was official business, too: Shortly after this visit, a trade treaty was signed, and then English speakers began calling the Sandwich Islands by their proper name of Hawaii. But to a member of the general public, surely what the king signed was less interesting than what the king scarfed. Trade agreements are nebulous. But Americans have always understood eating.