A state dinner at the White House is the highest honor a visiting head of state can receive. Throughout an evening of pageantry, musical entertainment, and good food, the United States reaffirms its relationship with the guest of honor. But a state dinner also shows the tastes of the U.S. itself—and those who lead it. Few meals are placed under a brighter spotlight. Even presidents who would rather eat a Big Mac recognize the importance of subtle messaging at the dinner table.
Each president’s interpretation of the state dinner menu has been different, shaped not only by their times but also by their view of America’s place in the world.
Is it better to serve the foods of the guest of honor’s country or to demonstrate a universal culinary language? Which types of wines are the best? Should jellied lobster ever be attempted? Sadly, for too many presidents the answer to that last question was yes.
“All the Presidents’ Meals” examines, for the first time, what was served at every White House state dinner since Franklin D. Roosevelt. To obtain these menus, interactive developer Christopher Hickey scoured through presidential libraries, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and two Freedom of Information Act requests for menus in collections that were previously not available to the public. The menu data was then graphed with a series of interactive treemaps for each president. Data are broken down into six categories of dish and then the dishes themselves. Dishes are represented by a series of boxes that vary in size and color depending on quantity. The more times a dish was served by a president, the larger the box.
The results were striking. Each president’s state dinner menus tell us what food was considered “the best” in that moment in time. During the Great Depression and World War II, a state dinner would likely include roast turkey and stuffing—or, if you were feeling fancy, terrapin with a frozen cheese salad. In the prosperous 1960s, heads of state would be served something French. In fact, the menu may well have been written in French. From the 1990s onwards, with people more connected than ever around the globe, a visiting sovereign would be likely to eat a meal drawing from a variety of fresh, local ingredients prepared in dishes honoring their native country.
These treemaps also reveal a lot about the presidents themselves. Lyndon B. Johnson, a proud Texan, served red meat at nearly every state dinner. Bill Clinton’s state dinners, on the other hand, contain nearly no red meat at all, because Hillary Clinton wanted him to eat healthier meals. Donald Trump’s sole state dinner, while classy, didn’t include a vegetable dish.
“All the Presidents’ Meals” offers a new take on both the past 86 years of American cuisine as well as the presidential administrations, and how White House state dinners often unite the two.