India Tribune

Thursday, Jul 24th

Last update:07:40:54 PM GMT

Headlines:
Serving the Asian Indian community in the US for over 36 years. ***** Established in 1977 ***** Published in three editions - Chicago, New York and Atlanta. ***** Reaches over sixty thousand people every week.
You are here: Home Newspaper Special Issue PM’s Visit To US Obamas’ special touches for Manmohan dinner

Obamas’ special touches for Manmohan dinner

E-mail Print PDF

Washington, DC: It is an old tradition, a White House dinner governed by ritual and protocol that happens to be this city’s hottest social event. But at their first State dinner on November 24 night, President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, made sure to infuse the glittering gala with distinctive touches.

They hired a new florist, Laura Dowling, who bedecked the tented outdoor dining room with locally grown, sustainably harvested magnolia branches and ivy. They selected a guest chef, Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit in New York, a US citizen, who was born in Ethiopia, reared in Sweden and cooks up melting pots of flavors and cuisines.

They invited local students  to witness the arrival of the guests of honor, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, and presented a mélange of musical entertainment, including the National Symphony Orchestra; Jennifer Hudson, the singer and actress; Kurt Elling, the jazz musician from Chicago; and A. R. Rahman, the Indian composer, who wrote the score to the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

And at the tables, the meatless menu included a mix of Indian and American favorites, including some African-American standards. Collard greens and curried prawns, chick peas and okra, nan and cornbread were served to the 320 guests —including some well-known Republicans and prominent Indian-Americans — who started off with arugula from the White House garden and finished up with pumpkin pie tart. (After a tasting at the White House on November 22, the Obamas gave the dishes their stamp of approval, Samuelsson said.)

And don’t forget the dinner plates. For an administration that publicly prizes bipartisanship, what could be finer than an eclectic mix of Clinton and Bush china?

“He wants to set a tone that’s different,” Vishakha N. Desai, a dinner guest and the Indian-born president of the Asia Society, said of the President. “Obama’s celebrating not just his African-American heritage, but the cultural diversity of America. And that’s a powerful message to send to the world.”

Obama greeted his guests in Hindi and hailed the contributions of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying that such “giants” are “the reason why both of us can stand here tonight.” Singh responded, “Your journey to the White House has captured the imaginations of millions and millions of Indians.”

The evening was a potent mix of politics, diplomacy and glamour, with the administration’s favored donors mingling with lawmakers from Congress, Cabinet secretaries, Indian dignitaries and Hollywood celebrities decked out in tuxedos and designer dresses. The First Lady wore a golden sleeveless gown created by Naeem Khan, an Indian-American designer.

For Obama, it was also a rare break from the bruising business of governance, allowing him to showcase his role as a world leader (and a gracious host) at a time when he is managing bitter battles over healthcare legislation and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — all while watching his standing falling in the polls.

The guest list included the actors Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood, the directors Steven Spielberg and M. Night Shyamalan, the writer Jhumpa Lahiri, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a Republican, and Indra Nooyi, the chief executive of PepsiCo.
“It does allow him to stand above the current squabbles in politics, to assume that role of head and state and remind people of the stature of the presidency,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian, who noted that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most famous state dinner — for the King and Queen of Britain —occurred during the Depression.

“It’s a break from the daily concerns,” Goodwin said. “This is our moment for that kind of ceremony, for that pomp and circumstances, and that’s nonpartisan.”

President Ulysses S. Grant held the first White House State dinner when he hosted King David Kalakaua of the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii) in 1874. Through the decades, leaders have used the occasions to reward prominent allies and to nurture diplomatic relationships with more or less regularity, depending on the president. (President George W. Bush held only six State dinners, while President Bill Clinton hosted more than 20.)
So as Washington buzzed in recent days about who was invited and who was not, many wondered how the country’s first African-American President and First Lady would put their personal stamp on the occasion.

The Obamas promptly distinguished themselves from their immediate predecessors by holding their dinner under a grand tent on the White House’s South Lawn to allow for a more expansive guest list. (Bush held all of his dinners indoors, which limited the numbers of guests.) And they emphasized some of their favorite themes, including bipartisanship, diversity and a focus on healthy meals.

The President invited several prominent Republicans, though Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and Rep. John Boehner, the House minority leader, sent their regrets. (The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, also could not make it.)

Michelle Obama made a splash by showcasing deep, rich colors — apple green for the table cloths and varying shades of plum, purple and fuchsia in the hydrangea, roses and sweet peas in the centerpieces.

There was White House honey and sage from the garden and a menu that gave vegetables and beans — including eggplants and lentils — top billing. (For a White House keen on promoting fresh fruits and vegetables, what could be more serendipitous than a guest of honor who happens to be a vegetarian?) And the Obamas shook things up by serving, among other dishes, Indian food to an Indian delegation, typically a no-no.

“You wouldn’t try to outdo the Indians, that would not be typical,” said Anita McBride, who served as Laura Bush’s chief of staff and took pains to praise Michelle Obama for moving in a new direction. “It’s the perfect combination of American food with a nod to the visiting country.”

As for the dozens of school children invited to participate in the day’s events, many savored the chance to see the White House up close. One group of young women spent time with Michelle Obama as they sampled the pumpkin pie in the State Dining Room and learned about the history of American state dinners.

“These events probably seem like they’re miles and miles away, like they’re just untouchable,” said Michelle Obama to the young women, some wearing sneakers and short sleeves.

She said she hoped this would inspire them to think harder about their place in the world around them.

“Who knows, maybe one of you all sitting at this table, one of our little mentees, will be living and studying somewhere in India — maybe New Delhi or Mumbai or Bangalore,” the First Lady said. “Just imagine that, start thinking about your future in that way. This visit at this table is the beginning of that for all of you.”