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A Brief History of State Dinners

The White House first hosted King David Kalākaua, of the Kingdom of Hawaii for a state dinner back in 1874

President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, first lady Melania Trump, and Brigitte Macron stand during a State Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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Tonight, President Donald Trump will host French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, for his administration’s first state dinner at the White House.

Though it's one of the biggest and fanciest traditions at the White House, you might be asking yourself: just what is a state dinner, exactly?

The tradition dates back to early 19th-century dinners in honor of the president's cabinet, Congress or other high-ranking officials. But since 1874, the event has been held as a way for the president and first lady to honor and extend hospitality to a head of state as part of an official visit the United States.

That year, President Ulysses S. Grant reinvented the state dinner by hosting King David Kalākaua, of the Kingdom of Hawaii. It has been a grand event ever since then, especially so after Theodore Roosevelt's remodeling of the White House in 1902 made it a "more appropriate setting for the nation's official entertaining," according to Betty C. Monkman of the White House Historical Association.

Despite being steeped in tradition, state dinners haven’t always remained the same throughout each presidency. "By all accounts," writes Laura Shapiro in What She Ate, "the food in the [Franklin] Roosevelt White House was the worst in the history of the presidency." Following the FDR administration's first state dinner—a Thanksgiving-themed menu— The Washington Post wrote in reference to the unsatisfactory meal, "Gentlemen, let us adjourn to a coffee-shoppe!"

During World War II, state dinners were conducted as normal, though Monkman notes the dishes were less elaborate. (Then again, President Thomas Jefferson is said to have served mac and cheese at a state dinner back in 1802.)

As the White House was undergoing reconstruction during Truman’s presidency, the state dinners were held at local hotels, and the dinner continues to change with the times. To sate the curiosity of the press, in the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson arranged for journalists to listen in on the dinner through an electronic system. In 2012, the Obama administration even hosted a Kids' State Dinner.

At least six months of preparation is required to put on a state dinner, per a 2015 post on the White House's blog. The event, everything from the seating arrangement to the menu, is traditionally organized by the First Lady, the State Department and the White House Social Secretary.

For years, long banquet tables were the norm, but according to TIME magazine, customs have since evolved; the now-common circular tables were a tradition started by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Today, the official state dinner room seats 120 people, and the guest list includes many government officials from both parties as well as celebrities. American artists, including symphonies, dance theaters and contemporary artists like Beyoncé and Mumford and Sons, have also performed during the event.

Per tradition, First Lady Melania Trump has selected the menu for tonight's affair. The meal will include a rack of lamb, a nectarine tart, and "[p]erhaps surprisingly," Food and Wine's Elisabeth Sherman points out, American wine, which the White House says is intended to "embody the historic friendship" between the U.S. and France.

Princess Diana dances with actor John Travolta in the Entrance Hall at Nov. 9, 1985, state dinner. In the background, President Ronald Reagan is also dancing, and First Lady Nancy Reagan is talking with Prince Charles. Pete Souza took this photograph. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum/NARA)
President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton pose in the Blue Room for a photograph with President Ernesto Zedillo and First Lady Nilda Patricia Velasco de Zedillo of Mexico during a state dinner Oct. 10, 1995. They are surrounded by the performers for the evening, a mariachi band. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum/NARA)
In this photograph, taken on October 17, 1957 by Abbie Rowe of National Park Service, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, and Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, pose at the White House Grand Staircase before a state dinner. This was the queen's first official state visit to the United States. (National Archives and Records Administration)
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush pose for a photo in the State Dining Room. Before the Bush state china was delivered, the Bushes often used the anniversary service ordered during the Clinton administration, most of which arrived after President Clinton's term ended. Select pieces from this service were first used for an official event when President and Mrs. Bush hosted the annual Governors Association Dinner Feb. 25, 2001. (George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum/NARA)
President Barack Obama speaks at a state dinner held in honor of the Nordic leaders attending the U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit. The dinner was held on the South Lawn of the White House, in a transparent tent with decorations inspired by the northern lights, the wintry environs of the five Nordic nations, and ice. This photograph was taken by Matthew D'Agostino for the White House Historical Association May 13, 2016. (White House Historical Association)
Violinist Isaac Stern prepares to perform for the President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and their guests in the East Room during a White House dinner in honor of André Malraux, Minister of State for Cultural Affairs of France, May 11, 1962. This photograph is credited to White House photographer Robert Knudsen. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA)
This photograph by Joseph J. Scherschel shows President Richard Nixon, First Lady Pat Nixon, President Georges Pompidou of France, and his wife, Claude Pompidou, in the Cross Hall during state dinner ceremonies Feb. 24, 1970. (White House Historical Association)
President Ronald Reagan takes a scoop of sorbet from a pulled-sugar basket as Queen Sirikit, queen consort of Thailand, looks on. The Reagans honored her with an intimate black tie dinner March 11, 1985. (Collection of Roland Mesnier)
About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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