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White House - Dinners And Other Meals

( Originally Published 1908 )

FACTS relating to the serving of meals, the table service and the kitchen, at the White House, are of peculiar interest to all American housewives and to home-makers generally. Information- on this important subject will be found in this and the succeeding chapter.

At the present time, under the régime of President and Mrs. Roosevelt, the customary dinner hour at the Executive Mansion is half-past seven for small dinners, and eight o'clock for banquets. There has hardly been a single night when guests have not been present at dinner with the Roosevelts, and hence it has been the invariable custom to serve that meal in the State dining-room, the private dining-room being reserved for family meals, such as breakfast, and also luncheon, on the very rare occasions when only the family members are present.

As to the children, their supper is served in the private dining-room at 8:3o, and their luncheon at half-past one, this last named meal being served in the State dining-room.

Luncheons Formal and Informal

Luncheon at the White House under President Roosevelt has been usually an informal meal. If the guests are family friends the children and their governess are present. It is at this meal that Mr. Roosevelt finds time to hold conversation with the most distinguished men in the land, for it is to luncheon that he invites, very informally, all sorts and conditions of men and women to break bread with him.

Luncheon in President Cleveland's time was a more formal affair. Mrs. Cleveland was fond of entertaining at this meal, her invitations reading, for example :

"Mrs. Cleveland requests the pleasure of the company of Miss --- at luncheon Wednesday, January 12, at 1:30 o'clock, 1887."

Arrangements for Dinners at the White House

A dinner invitation to the White House, it is said, is like a "command." Etiquette rules that it cannot be declined. It is no valid excuse to say that you have asked guests to your own house for the same evening ; your dinner must be postponed or must be served in your absence.

The first State dinner of each season is always tendered to the Cabinet members and their wives, and they, in ranking turn, become hosts to the President and his lady in the nine succeeding weeks. Formerly the guests, outside the Cabinet families, were from the official circle at Washington and the nine dinners with practically the same guests, and where inexorable precedence compelled the same pairing at table produced a monotony not to be endured by a President of Mr. Roosevelt's temperament. He accordingly introduced the custom of each host, after having submitted the list of intended guests to him, inviting friends outside the official circle. This has resulted in making the dinners more pleasant and brings to them many guests of wealth and distinction from other cities. The second State dinner is to the members of the Diplomatic Corps and the third to the Justices of the Supreme Court. The courtesy of a White House dinner is always extended to any scion of royalty who may be visiting in this country, and to innumerable other persons of note.

The appointments of the White House banquets, according to Waldon Fawcett, are admirable. The cloth which covers the table is of the finest texture of linen, as are also the naperies. The decorative effects vary,. but are almost invariably elaborate, the White House conservatory being subjected to many requisitions for the floral part of the adornment. A very fine effect that has often been utilized is that produced by a silver-framed mirror which extends the full length of the table, and is surrounded by a drooping hedge of fine ferns, producing the effect of a placid stream with the overhanging verdure reflected on its surface.

The table presents a co-mingling of silver and crystal and fine china.

The arrangements and regulations governing dinners at the White House in McKinley's time are given in detail in an article in the New York Sun. The arrangements here named remain pretty nearly the same in the Roosevelt administration, thus:

"Before entering the dining-room, each guest is given an envelope enclosing a card on which is printed a complete diagram of the table, with the various seats numbered. The name of the lady he is expected to take in to dinner is also written on the card. A cross is drawn through the number of the seat the guest is to occupy. The possibility of mistake is further obviated by placing at each plate another card with the guest's name written across the face.

"The seats of least honor are at the ends of the table. The President sits in the centre of one of the long sides. The seat next in honor is directly opposite.

"The decorations of a State dining table is always marked by extreme modesty. There is no attempt at elaborate display. Numerous bouquets of choice roses or orchids are scattered along the centre and bouquets and boutonniers of similar flowers placed by the plates of the ladies and gentlemen. All is so arranged that though the table presents a vision of unusual beauty, there is no sense of the overpowering in decoration. Numerous candelabra add to the scene with their soft lights.

"There are seldom, if ever, more than twelve courses to a White House dinner. As a usual thing the courses range in number from eight to twelve. They are served without haste.

An entire dinner in this manner is served within two hours, and some of the most noted dinners have been served in even less time.

"When the dinner is finished the President and his wife rise as a signal that the service is at an end. The ladies pass to the reception rooms, and the men to the smoking room, where coffee is served. The gentlemen pass some time in informal conversation, and then join the ladies in the reception rooms. Here tea is served. Custom prescribes that none of the other guests shall leave until those of the highest rank have taken leave of the evening's host and hostess. Out of consideration to the other guests these officials leave immediately after tea has been served. The other guests follow closely, so that the entire company has left the White House by eleven o'clock.

President Roosevelt's Dinners

President Roosevelt has given more dinners, as he has entertained more, than any other occupant of the White House. At such times the White House table, in the State dining-room, is decorated most beautifully and artistically. When not too many guests are to be present, the dinner is served by the regular White House kitchen force. For State dinners, however, and other dinners at which a great number of persons are to be present, a caterer is called in.

During dinner at the White House today, music is usually furnished by the Marine Band. Two hours is the customary time spent at the table. Large dinners last from eight to ten, these being distinguished thus from the less formal and smaller dinners which are served at seven-thirty. When the meal is over, President Roosevelt rises, and all present then also rise. The gentlemen retire for a time to the private dining-room, where coffee is served, after which they join the ladies in whatever room Mrs. Roosevelt and her guests may have gathered. At State dinners Mr. Roosevelt may have from forty to ninety guests. One of President Roosevelt's State dinners was described by a Washington correspondent, thus:

"The beauty of the State dining-room has seldom appeared to better advantage than in the decorative setting of last night's dinner. The long table laid for forty-five covers was treated artistically in red, green and white, a combination of colors which accords well with the decorations of the room. In the centre an enormous silver bowl held a towering mound of crimson Liberty roses, and two lower plaques of these flowers were set in green at intervals along the two ends of the table. Nearer the plate line, six branching candelabra capped in silver and crimson rose on either side above spreading bunches of white carnations and innumerable clusters of Farleyense ferns relieved the white expanse of damask.

"At the President's place, the customary high gold goblet was set, and the light which fell from the centre chandelier and girondoles played brilliantly upon the crystal and plate of the table service.

"The corridor was beautified with a charming arrangement of palms. The Marine Band played throughout the dinner."

President McKinley's Dinner Arrangements

One innovation which was inaugurated during President McKinley's administration was the practice of having a number of young people present to enliven each State dinner. President and Mrs. McKinley also entertained innumerable small private dinner parties. Scarcely a Sunday night during the session but some of the President's intimate personal friends dropped in for dinner, and Mrs. McKinley entertained at luncheon a number of her old schoolmates and other friends.

At a State dinner President McKinley sat in the centre of the long table, and according to the usual usage at the White House his wife would occupy the next seat in honor the place directly opposite. President McKinley did not always, however, observe this custom. The invalidism of his wife prompted him frequently to have her occupy the place by his side, and the opposite was in such event, occupied by Secretary Hay.

The limitations of the White House at that time necessitated all kinds of makeshifts in the serving of large dinners, a fact to which one correspondent refers, as follows :

"If the number of guests exceeds fifty, the table is spread in the central corridor. If less, the State dining-room is used. It is interesting to note the attempts which have been successively made to increase the seating capacity of the State dining-room. The original table was a rectangular affair seating thirty-six guests. When this became inadequate a shell was constructed similar in outline to the figure eight, which, placed atop the table, increased the seating capacity to fifty. The number of guests, then, controls the choice of a dining-room. During the afternoon the table is prepared and its .setting arranged. For this purpose the steward chooses one of the many sets of china belonging to the White House."

A State Dinner When Hayes was Host

"The second State dinner was given this evening," says a report written during the term of President Hayes, "the guests including the Vice-President, Cabinet and members of both houses. Most of the guests were accompanied by ladies. The Marine Band was stationed in the north vestibule. The inner vestibule was ablaze with lights and decorated with flags and tall plants. The Green, Blue and Red Parlors were elaborately ornamented with plants in blossom, clusters of crocuses giving a fresh and spring like air to the apartments. The East Parlor was brilliantly lighted for the use of promenaders and was filled with flowers.

"The State dining-room is in the southwest corner of the mansion adjoining the Red Parlor. It is 40x30 feet in size, and contains a dining-table having room for thirty-six covers, three guests being placed at either end. On the table were many bouquets of roses, chiefly pink and red ; and the long, oval mirror in the centre was bordered with calla lilies, separated by clusters of green. The card at each plate bore the National coat-of-arms, embossed in gilt, and the name of the guest was inscribed in old English text. A boutonnière was half hidden in each gentleman's napkin. A decanter of water beside each plate bore silent testimony to Mrs. Hayes' convictions on the temperance question."

Brilliant Dinner-Party Given by President Monroe

The wife of the Secretary of the Navy under President Monroe, Mrs. Crowninshield, wrote many letters embodying her experiences at the White House, among which is found the following reference to a brilliant dinner-party, and to Mrs. Monroe as hostess, Mrs. Crowninshield's letter being written in the winter of 1815:

"At Mrs. Monroe's we had the most stylish dinner I have been at. The table wider than we have, and in the middle a large, perhaps, silver waiter, with images like some Aunt Silsbee has, only more of them, and vases filled with flowers, which made a very showy appearance as the candles were lighted when we went to table. The dishes were silver and set round this waiter. The plates were handsome china, the forks silver, and so heavy that I could hardly lift them to my mouth, dessert knives silver, and spoons very heavy you would call them clumsy things. Mrs. Monroe is a very elegant woman. She was dressed in a very fine muslin worked in front and lined with pink, and a black velvet turban close and spangled. Her daughter, Mrs. Hay, a red silk sprigged in colors, white lace sleeves and a dozen strings of coral round her neck. Her little girl, six years old, dressed in plaid. The drawing-room was handsomely lighted transparent lamps I call them; three windows, crimson damask curtains, tables, chairs and all the furniture French; and andirons, something entirely new."

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