For a year or two I had to attend (for my sins) a great many Washington parties including embassy affairs. I set forth to gobble my way down Massachusetts Avenue, hoping (as Horace urges) to keep an equal mind, whate'er befall, and determining (as Auden prescribes) to wear my tribulation like a rose. For I suspected these embassy assignments would try the soul.
How astonishing, and in a way how embarrassing, to discover it was enormous fun to dine, to lunch and to nibble (for there were a lot of receptions, too) all over the place; though, admittedly, I had one paramount advantage over some, in that I always, invariably, ate before I went. In this way I did not much care what was served.
Before seeming to give myself any airs of being above the common stomach, though, I should confess I did light up for caviar, and suffered like anybody else to see it sent out to the garbage can. One black night, for example, the Iranian Embassy (this was before Iran became virtuous and chopped off sinners' hands) entertained at a gala dinner for the new mission of the People's Republic of China. There is that endless frontier between Iran and the Soviet Union, so the Iranians were always interested not only in being on fine terms with the Russians, but also in charming such thorns in Russian flesh as the Chinese.
The caviar came round as the second course. The Chinese watched the Persians, who took a large tablespoon or so, and the Chinese did the same. The Chinese, however, had no intention of eating so strange a dish, which is not natural to their nation or their palate, so they stirred it about the plate, lifted it to their lips on forks, and (struck by some urgent need to say something) set it down again. They did this for about l5 minutes, and their plates went out, not untouched, but unconsumed. I have never personally observed the Chinese equal for spreading caviar uniformly about a plate and giving a show of pleasure at food without actually eating any.
The Iranian Embassy was one of the "most popular" in town during the years that Ardeshir Zahedi ran the place. That is, they entertained constantly, and the ambassador flattered all the women, sometimes going about the table kissing each one no matter how old or how far beyond labial titillation. Furthermore, you got plenty of caviar at least at every other dinner, and if you didn't, you got some "peasant specialty of Iran," such as soup with rose petals, walnuts and possibly ground emeralds floating about.
At one embassy dinner, I heard the Chinese chief of mission excuse himself to go to the men's washroom and he was followed by a compatriot who, as far as I could see, could have waited another hour or two. Not the least fidgety. I asked the late David K. E. Bruce, who was a guest, if it were really true that even the ambassadors from some tightly controlled countries could not go to the john alone, and he said it was true indeed, and that was why the fellow was trotting along behind his ambassador. Live and learn.
One of the best spreads I ran into was at the Bulgarian Embassy, where the food was cooked and served by women associated with the embassy, not by caterers (as usually is the case at embassy functions). The event was small, and I remember it for the astonishing amount of laughter. While I had never before beheld anything that was served, I can say there was what I took to be ground lamb wrapped in steamed leaves not quite grape. It was like a family party with the grandmother in charge, and delightful. The French Embassy shocked the world when they took to serving Cokes at their July 14th receptions--and hot dogs as well, God save us all. But at dinners they did much better, and the food was French. You may say, Well what else is new? But be assured that embassies in general do not hew to native cuisine. If one had to summarize embassy food in a nutshell, it is French as seen through an American veil, darkly.
At a French Embassy dinner I once had the pleasure of speaking with Rose Kennedy when a French minister, visiting America, joined the group and inquired if Mrs. Kennedy were Parisian? She stated she was American. Fancy that, one would have sworn she was Parisian, and he started to get in deeper when Mrs. Kennedy said she was mother of John and Robert. Well, you can't tell by looking, and nobody thought anything of it except, we all guessed, the minister, who seemed rather off his feed for a time.
Dinners at the British Embassy are festive if stately, and are usually followed by dancing for the young and masochistic. The food may be French or even nouvelle cuisine (extremely thin veal, a little mound of unseasoned brussels sprouts just for the hell of it) and lightning conversation. At the German Embassy I do not recall ever having eaten German food. One night it was a combination of Mexican and Chinese, which was stimulating. They also like to dance there. More than once a man may well be terrified when they announce women will choose the men for partners. They are very advanced in Germany, evidently, and it ought not be permitted.
The Japanese, both at the old and now at the new embassy, give elaborate receptions. There is usually a Japanese dish or two, but not enough so that you starve; indeed, the dish there that I remember best was a vast salver of chocolate ,eclairs in a remote corner where one could eat without being observed.
The Danes are elegant and high-minded. Their food is the usual catered affair of high quality and the rooms make you wonder if you should have taken two showers instead of one. They have a great many white lamp shades all identical and this, I think, gives one the impression of purity, leanness, discipline, and I have never felt like eating more than two or three shrimps and no pastries whatever. I once acquired some books on Kierkegaard because I heard so much about him at the Danish headquarters.
When Zaire became Zaire, they were not at first in the phone book, and one of the pleasantest (and longest) tours I ever had of the capital was in a cab taking me there for dinner. This proved to be lamb that had been roasted whole and as good as anything ever consumed by mortals. The Saudi Arabian Embassy may have other meat than lamb, but except for a few shrimps, I have not eaten anything else there. The lamb is magnificent and there is so much of it that indulgence seems rather a duty.
Once President Ford attended a bash at the Argentine Embassy and television cameras relayed the gala goings-on to Buenos Aires. The attorney general was waiting to be interviewed by an Argentine media idol when the idol fainted dead away. It would be interesting to know why pleasant things like this do not happen on CBS.