Bilingual menus and place cards, prepared by a Chinese-American calligrapher from the State Department; 1,500 red and pink camellias trucked up from Moultrie, Ga.; plume de veau , the most expensive veal available in this country; handmade chocolate boxes filled with handmade chocolate truffles -- the White House hasn't gone to this much trouble since the State Dinner for the queen of England in the Ford administration.
The Carter White House insists that tonight's State Dinner for the first mainland Chinese delegation to visit the White House since the Franklin Roosevelt era isn't any more special than any other. "They're all special," an official said.
But they don't all cost as much. The meal that will be served tonight would be about $50 a person in one of this city's best restaurants.
The plume de weau , for instance, a roast loin stuffed with a mixture of ground veal, mushrooms, sherry, cream, shallots and bread crumbs, "is saved for certain dinners like this," according to White House executive chef Henry Haller. Queen Elizabeth was the last visitor to whom it was served.
The timbale of seafood "is very seldom done because it's fancy and it's expensive," Haller added. Expensive because it contains lobster, shrimp and scallops in a sauce Americaine . Fancy because it takes a lot of hand work. Each "bowl" of pastry is made by shaping dough over a mixing bowl and baking it. Then the partially baked dought is "painted" with an egg wash and the rim decorated with dough cut in the shape of leaves. The decorated "bowl" is put back in the oven so that the whole thing turns golden brown. It is filled with the seafood mixture just before dinner.
Then, of course, there are the creations of the new pastry chef, Albert Kumin. Kumin does not arrive at the White House "officially" until next Thursday, but he began working on the desserts for the dinner last Thursday.
By Friday at 3 p.m. he had finished molding 16 round chocolate boxes with flower-decorated lids. They were filled with dark chocolate and milk chocolate truffles, also prepared by Kumin. The boxes will be surrounded by delicate French almond cookies called tuiles , or tiles, so named because immediately after they are removed from the oven, they are gently bent into the shape of French roof tiles.
Who gets the boxes at the end of the meal, Haller says, "is the maitre d's problem."
But the boxes, and the candy, and the cookies are only an accompaniment to the dessert itself -- chestnut mousse. The White House may have served stuffed loin of plume de veau before; they have never served such a rich dessert. Certainly never one so elaborate.
The mousse is mde with marron (chestnut) puree, flavored with kirsch lightened with whipped eream, bound with egg yolks and filled with pieces of glazed chestnuts.
To accompany the veal, Haller is preparing fresh broccoli and saffron rice, followed by an endive and watercress salad and Kentucky Trappist cheese, which the chef considers the best cheese in this country.
The important elements of the meal are French, though the wines are, as is the Carter custome, American. With the seafood timbale, a Paul Masson pinot chardonnay, 1976, will be served. The veal will be accompanied by a Simi rose or cabernet sauvignon, 1976. For toasting, Hanns Kornell extra-dry champagne.
The menu was selected by the chef with Rosalynn Carter and White House social secretary Gretchen Poston. "No rare beef," Haller said, because he didn't think "the Chinese would like that, and well-done beef the Americans wouldn't like. No duck because they have their own Peking duck. Seafood because the Chinese like seafood, and chestnut mousse because the Chinese like nuts."
According to Poston, "the State Department sends over dietary guidelines for every visit, but there were no food restrictions on this one. As a matter of fact, anything we asked, the Chinese would say would be wonderful. They were so anxious to please. They have been so cooperative."
While the chefs put the finishing touches on the dinner today, members of several Georgia garden clubs will be arranging the pink and red camellias. The last time Georgia garden clubbers were in the White House they were decorating it for Jimmy Carter's inauguration. The last time the camellias were there was a year ago when the 75-year-old mayor of Moultrie called and asker Mrs. Carter if she would like some. The mayor drove then up in the back of his Winnebago. He's doing the same thing this year -- with a Moultrie policeman as escort.
The camellias will be used througout the White House and as centerpieces for the round tables in the State Dining Room. The tables will be covered with floor-length white damask cloths. Poston prefers white -- "It's the most appropriate thing because it's formal." The flowers will be surrounded with votive candles. The guests will dine off the Truman green china and drink from West Virginia crystal.
Dress is black tie, even though the Chinese don't own tuxedos. "They wanted us to do whatever we do for other state dinners," Poston said, "and our state dinners are black tie."
In order to be at the Kennedy Center for the entertainment at 9 p.m., dinner has been set for 6:30. The 140 guests will begin to assemble in the East Room about 6:15 where they will sip B. V. pinot chardonnay, Robert Mondavi white wine and fruit juices -- the standard refreshments in the Carter White House. The receiving line begins at 7; guests will sit down to dinner at 7:20. In order to get through the four-course meal in an hour and 20 minutes, extra butlers have been hired.
While the presidential party travels in a motorcade, the ramaining guests will be bused from the South Entrance to the Kennedy Center. Even the buses will be decorated for the short trip across town: green roping with American and Chinese flags.
The historic visit shares a similarity to the first White House visit of a Chinese official. In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes greeted a Chinese minister in the Blue Room. While there is no record of what the visiting dignitary was served, Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes was known as "Lemonade Luch."
Like the Chinese minister just over 100 years ago, the visiting Chinese will find no hard liquor in the house, either.