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
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.