Saturday, May 10, 2014

Etiquette of White House Table Service and State Dinners



State dinners had become so large by Ronald Reagan's presidency that none of the china could accommodate the number of guests. First Lady Nancy Reagan ordered 4,370 pieces of Lenox china, enough place settings of 19 pieces for 220 people. This was nearly twice as many placesettings as other recent services. The Reagans wanted a design that would display a strong presence for the subtly colored State Dining Room, now painted white. Nancy Reagan worked closely with Lenox designers to create a pattern with bands in a striking scarlet red, which was her favorite color. The pattern was bordered on each side with etched gold, which created a sparkling contrast with the soft ivory china. The presidential seal was in raised gold in the center, partially overlaying the red border. On pieces such as the service and dessert plates, fine gold crosshatching overlays the red.  The Reagans were often criticized for the $209,508 cost, but the china was not funded by taxpayers. It was paid for by the J.P. Knapp Foundation.

All through the Cold War, the White House maintained the tradition of Russian table service at its official luncheons and dinners. And now that the Russians have switched from threatening to bewildering, there is talk of abolishing Russian service.

Trust Miss Manners to discover the one political issue that excites no one except herself. But perhaps she can stir something up.The question is only whether food at formal meals should be offered around on platters, with guests taking what they want, or whether each guest should be handed a pre-filled plate, with some of everything on it. Who cares?

But we're talking about a republic. Surely we can turn this into an emotional debate with charges of elitism and the stifling of creativity on one side, and of throwing people out of work and wasting the earth's resources on the other.


Stereoscopic view of the White House State Dining Room tables set in the latter half of the 19th century.  The tables were long at the time.  Jacqueline Kennedy changed White House dining when she opted to make a switch to smaller, and more intimate, round tables during the Kennedy Administration.   They remain round to this day.
The teams are: Russian, French, American (known to the English as English) and Restaurant, listed in reverse order of probable popularity. But since people seem to feel so passionately about their food nowadays (which is why Miss Manners figured that restaurants would claim loyalty before any country), their respective positions - long since removed from any real national claims - should be examined.

All of these are types of formal service, in the modern sense of meaning that guests do not actually have to bus their own dishes. (The equivalent understanding of informal service probably involves keeping the refrigerator door open, and Miss Manners doesn't want to know the details.)

In French service, huge numbers of dishes are set out in symmetrical patterns on the dining table, guests being expected to help themselves and one another from what they find within reach. Standard until the late 19th century, this may be said to survive in today's buffet table. But how we evolved to being dumber than the Victorians, who realized how foolish it was to ask human beings to eat standing up, Miss Manners cannot say.

In Russian service, which replaced the French, food is arranged on platters that are taken around to the seated guests, who serve themselves. Leaving enough to go around depends on the honor system.

The success of a state dinner tends to hinge on a well-choreographed series of social gestures. Other than not fighting, the rules are common-sensical: For example, don't wear a pink pantsuit like the one Martha Stewart did during the official visit of the president of Hungary- to much derision at a state dinner in June 1999 - and never sit down until the president does.

"You stand in deference, you don't begin eating until everyone at the table is served, you talk to everybody," according to Letitia Baldrige,  the late etiquette expert who was social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy. "And you never complain about the food."

In formal American service, the only formal service that still honors the noble and ancient ritual of personally carving for one's guests, the host or hostess carves the meat at the table after inquiring about the preferences of each guest. If the veggies are put on, too, and if everyone passes the plates down the table (and, if they are overly polite, all the way around and back again), it is "family style," but if servers do all that, it is formal.

In Restaurant service, which is to say at all except the truly best restaurants, food is "plated" in the kitchen, and each person is given some of everything. The commercial attraction is that this is the speediest service, which employs the fewest people.

Notice that this is the only formal service in which guests are not allowed to choose what they take (although in restaurants, they have already stated their preferences when they ordered).

You see where Miss Manners is leading. She is about to suggest that if the White House changes from Russian service to Restaurant (the French system being defunct and the American being impractical for big dinners, however comfy it would be to see the president carving), good food will be wasted.

And that guests may find things on their plates to which they have philosophical, medical or religious objections. And that worthy people with families to support may find themselves out of jobs.

Miss Manners really doesn't want to use those tedious arguments, any more than she wants to fight the even worse arguments that Russian service inhibits the creativity of chefs who would prefer to dribble sauces artistically on plates rather than on platters, or that it is elitist because the citizenry doesn't eat that way every day.

She prefers to argue that the mere continuing of a graceful tradition to distinguish special-occasion dining from more practical methods for everyday use is what is important. There is a vast difference between dignity and pretentiousness.

For Dining and Diplomacy; The Clinton White House's Tables for Queen Elizabeth II's visit.  Gaffes in this setting are long remembered.  For example, Jimmy Carter's 1979 state dinner for Mexican president, Jose Lopez Portillo. Carter shocked his guests with an indiscreet joke about getting "Montezuma's revenge" (a severe diarrhea) while visiting Mexico. And protocol can only go so far when so many ambitious people are going to be crammed into one room. Social secretaries of past administrations can recall movie stars refusing to give the Secret Service their actual birth dates for security clearances and guests who ran into the State Dining Room, attempting to change name cards for better schmoozing potential.

Dining at the White House has been steadily de-formalized over the past few administrations, until it is nearly comparable to eating in a fancy restaurant. Guests regularly bring dates, reply by telephone (or forget to reply and have to be called), dress for shock rather than decorum, or refuse the invitation altogether, if they have something better to do.

First-timers who consider it a command performance and strain to live up to it by polishing their conversation, their shoes and their manners soon find that the custom is to treat it casually.

And that the unflattering rationale is that anything nicer and more special would be wasted on ordinary citizens, who wouldn't know how to handle it.


The main article was originally published on June 14 1994, and was written by Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners


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