In remarks welcoming the media to a preview of the dinner, Jill Biden spoke about how her mother taught her about the way dining can bring people together — and that even humble food could be elevated by a beautiful setting. “Even if we were only having fish sticks from the freezer, she always made our dinners feel special,” she said. Not that frozen entrees will find their way to the linen draped tables on Thursday. The carefully planned dinner is “an expression of welcome and friendship — a way to connect through a language that transcends words,” Jill Biden said. “And as each dish comes to the table, so, too, does the meaning behind it.”
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Menus for state dinners have historically been displays of culinary diplomacy, sometimes featuring admiring nods to the guests’ cuisine and often showcasing the bounty of America’s farms and fields. Thursday’s menu does both in decadent spades. It includes the Francophile touch of a pre-dessert cheese course, though with “American artisanal cheeses” for a blending of traditions. (They include, the first lady boasted, a Rogue River Blue, the champion of the 2019 World Cheese Awards). And the first-course of lobster is accented with a tarragon sauce, which feels like an across-the-pond cousin of our guest’s famous Bernaise — along with a delicata squash ravioli and American osetra caviar.
That’s followed by a “calotte of beef,” a lesser-known cut of well-marbled beef more often called a “coulotte,” served with a shallot marmalade, triple-cooked potatoes, sunchokes, creamed watercress and a red-wine reduction. The meal’s preparation was being overseen by White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford and White House Executive Pastry Chef Susie Morrison, veterans of multiple administrations.
It’s the first such affair — a traditional black-tie to-do — of this administration, which saw White House socializing curtailed no-thank-you-very-much to the pandemic, so a little extra scrutiny applies. Perhaps a well-manicured eyebrow will arch over the selection of Maine lobster, a species that is being dropped by sustainable seafood-accrediting organizations because of the hazard to the endangered North American right whale. And an entree of beef, which is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas, from a White House that’s made climate change a priority?
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The wines being served are made stateside, but again with a callback to France. The president is a teetotaler, but the first lady — who enjoys a glass of wine with dinner — made the selections. She opted for two Californians for dinner, a Newton unfiltered chardonnay from Napa Valley and a cabernet sauvignon from the Anakota winery in Sonoma County’s Knights Valley, followed by a sparkler for dessert, a brut rosé from the Roederer Estate, a revered house that’s the American outpost of the French champagne maker.
Of course, the question on the mind of anyone with an interest in the gastronomic indulgences of the president was this: Would he serve ice cream, the dish he’s made his signature? Of course he did, though not the beachside cones he enjoys on the weekends, but a quenelle-shaped accent (an ooh-la-la flourish) to an orange chiffon cake, a charmingly retro sweet said to have been invented by a Los Angeles insurance agent in the 1920s. The dish seems to embody the tone of the entire meal: a little bit old-fashioned, a little bit fancy, inflected with the accents of both host and guest.