Schleider's, the Baltimore catering firm, didn't get the call from the White House until late Saturday night:
Could they supply 110 kosher meals for the state dinner following the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty Monday? And could they bring along two lunches for Prime Minister and Mrs. Begin, who would be dining with the Carters and Sadats in the family quarters before the signing?
The short notice was understandable. Yesterday's seated dinner for 1,360 was the largest ever given by the White House, but it had to be organized in less than a week. And in the final days, planning turned to frenzy.
On Sunday night the White House called Ridgewell's Caterers, asking them to provide 160 dinners at Blair House to take care of the overflow crowd. According to Mary Hoyt, Rosalynn Carter's press secretary, they were "people from the Israeli and Egyptian embassies, the State Department and people who came to the signing we couldn't accommodate and didn't know what to do with."
By 6 p.m. last night, the White House still didn't know how it would transport those guests across Pennsylvania Avenue to the South Lawn for the toasts and entertainment.
Some White House staffers who had been invited late last week were told over the weekend to stand by. Yesterday afternoon they were finally told they could come.
It wasn't because of a shortage of food -- the Mayflower Hotel had prepared the more than 1,100 pounds of strip loin of beef, because the White House kitchen doesn't have enough ovens. It was a matter of space, since guests could accept or regret up until late yesterday afternoon.
Mayflower chef Bernard Binon joined his friend, White House chef Henry Haller, in the kitchen last night, and with 10 other chefs helped to prepare the food to be served by 280 waiters under four tents.
The frantic, last-minute preparations were in sharp contrast with the calm at the White House six year ago before the last similar sit-down meal. In May of 1973, President Nixon invited all the freed Vietnam prisoners of war for dinnr under the same orange-and-yellow striped tent that was set up last week on the South Lawn.
The Nixon White House had two or three months to make the arrangements, but was plagued with daily rains that preceded the POW dinner and poured down on the guests most of the evening. By the time they sat down to eat, many had slogged through ankle-deep mud which had destroyed silver slippers and encrusted the hems of chiffon gowns.
Last night it was windy and cold, and no rain was expected. But a footwide moat was built around the tents to carry off any unforeseen precipitation.
While the guests in the dinning tents were being warmed with portable heaters, the help wasn't. One of the butlers swore he would wear a ski jacket; others opted for long underwear beneath their tuxedos. It was so cold in the afternoon that the plastic sides of the tents kept cracking as they flapped against the poles.
The logistics for last night's dinner differed little from those six years ago. "We just dug out the old plans," Hoyt said.
They resurrected the electric chandeliers from the POW dinner, not only to light the main dining tent, but also to take away some of its 45 feet of vertical emptiness. The 100-by-180-foot tent is longer than the White House.
Food warmers, refrigerated trucks, insulated containers and two 18-foot aluminum boats were borrowed from the armed services. The boats, filled with ice, were used to chill the champagne and two other kinds of wine.
Most of the rest of the equipment at the 130 tables was rented from Ridgewell's. Those on the Washington party circuit should have recognized the caterer's ubiquitous gold ballroom chairs -- plus the 400 white bentwood ones used to fill in -- the cream-colored china with gold and black border; the flatware and second-quality wine glasses (there weren't enough of the first line); the fingerbowls with linen doilies; and the green polyester-and-cotton napkins, each tied with a white ribbon.
Interspersed among the Ridgewell's place settings were 110 services from Schleider's Kosher Caterers. Mike Zeren, the company's general manager, wanted to provide gold flatware, but he said the White House "wanted us to keep it toned down. They suggested it shouldn't look too different" from the rest of the settings.
Those instructions put a crimp in Schleider's desire to break out its best service pieces and have a buffet table in the dining tent, instead of serving individual plates of food from the kitchen tent.
The Baltimore staff brought their own portable stoves and prepared all the hot food on the South Lawn. (The dirty dishes went back to Baltimore).
The White House provided its own tablecloths, patterned with yellow-and-green branches on a white background. With the aid of volunteers, they arranged 130 centerpieces of forsythia and tulips, surrounded by hurricane-lamp candles, Ringing the centerpieces were small dishes of chocolate mints and peanuts.
For the previous three mornihgs, chef Haller had been up by 5:30. Even though he didn't have to prepare the beef, he was still responsible for the entire dinner and had to make the salmon in aspic for the first course and the platters of green beans, carrots and mushrooms to accompany the beef.
The cheese straws, hazelnut-and-chocolate mousse and petit fours were prepared by Albert Kumin, the celebrated pastry chef who came to the White House less than a month ago.
Louis Martini Pinot Chrdonnay was served with the fish, Paul Masson Cabernet Sauvignon with the beef, and Almaden Blanc de Blanc with the dessert and for the toasts.
The kosher dinners were similar: salmon mousse for the first course, followed by boneless prime ribs of beef and the same vegetables. Rolls and margarine (butter cannot be served with meat, according to Jewish dietary laws) were available for anyone who wanted them. For dessert, a chocolate mousse was made with nondairy creamer. The wines were all an Israeli brand, Carmel.
It was a simple meal, as White Houe state dinners go, but may have ended up costing even more than the $40-to-60 per person Hoyt said is about average for a state dinner.
By late yesterday afternoon Haller was confident that everything would be fine. "It's better the second time around," he said. "I just hope the beef is hot."
So did the free-lance waiters. Over 300 of them had been called by Ridgewell's, which acted as the central casting office for accountants, lawyers and computer specialists who moonlight as waiters -- and eat the leftovers as the platters come back.
"Therehs always some attrition at the gate," Ridgewell's Jeff Ellis explained, "because some of them don't have proper clearance."