The president and first lady are hosting their first state dinner on Tuesday night, a feast in honor of French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte. The president said during the campaign that expensive state dinners should be abolished in favor of “eating a hamburger at a conference table.” But the only real break from tradition on Tuesday is the decision not to invite a single Democratic member of Congress, or journalist, to attend.
Tuesday’s dinner is being described in the press as an especially significant event for Melania Trump. State dinners are organized by the first lady’s office and are traditionally read as an expression of the first lady’s taste. If the entire concept of a “first lady” is retrograde, then the state dinner is the apogee of that quaint role: a dinner-party hostess performing a high-wire act of diplomacy, taste, and wifeliness on the world stage. For a first lady who has seemed less than enthusiastic in her “job” for some reason, it is an opportunity to perform the kind of high-stakes aesthetics at which she has always excelled.
On Monday, the first lady’s Twitter account shared a series of photos of Melania “checking on the final details” of the dinner, which involved gesturing at cherry blossoms, standing in a dining room, and holding a sheet of paper.
As usual, every detail of Tuesday’s dinner has become freighted with dubious significance: the “crème” and gold color scheme, the 2,500 stems of white sweet peas, the mix of china services from the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. The French-inflected menu includes rack of lamb, jambalaya prepared “in the New Orleans tradition,” nectarine tarts, and American wines. The chef is using celery, onions, and herbs from the White House garden installed by Michelle Obama. At around 120 people, the guest list on Tuesday is smaller than usual, though Donald Trump also previously said he offered to install a $100 million collapsible ballroom during the Obama administration to accommodate large state dinner crowds. Shockingly, that never came to fruition.
The modern state dinner has been a tradition since the 19th century, when President Ulysses S. Grant hosted the last king of Hawaii during the Christmas season of 1874. Grant’s wife, Julia, had imported an Italian chef to the White House and saw diplomatic entertaining as a palette to express her refined tastes. Details from that event are almost interchangeable with Tuesday night’s affair: banks of flowers in the dining room, new crystal chandeliers, a performance by a Marine band, an elaborate meal of some 30 courses. Despite the consistently breathless reporting, the things that can go “wrong” in a state dinner typically look ridiculous in retrospect—like the supposed scandal of “party crashers” Tareq and Michaele Salahi in 2009. (At one point, the Washington Post devoted 2,300 words and three reporters to investigating the mishap, under the rubric “TRAIL OF ACCUSATIONS.” A different era!)
It’s fitting that state dinners are so often compared to another ritual bound up in performances of old-school gender roles. Like traditionalist weddings, state dinners involve both men and women, but are organized by women and viewed as the first lady’s special event. In her memoir, Laura Bush said she was far more nervous before her first state dinner than before her vows. “A state dinner is far more intricate, an elaborate display of hundreds of moving parts, from guest lists and menus, which require an advance tasting, to table seatings, arrival protocols, and choices of linens, flowers, china, and silver, even the champagnes and wines,” she wrote. “If the four-hour evening is flawless, it is only because of the hundreds of hours that have been invested beforehand.” The dinners are “bigger than the biggest weddings,” one former White House chef told ABC News before an Obama dinner in 2009. “Maybe the only thing bigger than a state dinner is a royal wedding.” The actual royal wedding coming up in just a few weeks will make a handy comparison, then—although the Trumps have not received an invitation.