Thursday, December 15, 2011

Behind The Scenes At The Presidential Holiday Parties: The Protocol, The Menus, The Mingling...

The President and Mrs. Obama celebrate the holidays with thousands of guests and an incredible menu of traditional American favorites, served at buffets designed for maximum security...
"Business attire" is the sartorial suggestion printed on the cream-colored cards sent to invite guests to President Obama and First Lady Obama's holiday receptions, which have been going on almost daily since right after Thanksgiving. Despite the fashion guidance, there were women wearing evening gowns--complete with fur coats and jewels--at the evening party I attended. (Above: Guests at a reception surround a buffet table in the State Dining Room)

A fashion faux pas? Perhaps, but the glam revelers did not seem too out of place. The "Shine, Give, Share" decor theme that honors members of the military and their families gives the candle-lit White House a high fanciness quotient: It is filled with miles of pine garlands, shining ribbon, fairy lights, glittering ornaments, lush floral arrangements, and 37 Christmas trees, not to mention decorative images of First Dog Bo in almost every room. I also ignored "business attire," and wore a black cocktail dress, for the record.

"The President and I are at every holiday party," Mrs. Obama said this week. "And we shake almost every hand or take a picture, and we usually do them twice a day."

Each party has a guest list of hundreds, and each guest may bring a companion. The days of double Presidential party duty have back-to-back receptions: Afternoon shindigs begin at 3:00 PM, and the evening editions begin at 6:00 PM, and last as late as 10:00 PM. At the party I attended, I was happy to note that the First Lady also ignored the sartorial advice on the invitations. She was lovely in a pale gold brocade dress with spaghetti straps, and copper-colored pumps. Her hair was down and straight. America's most famous wardrobe recycler, Mrs. Obama's dress was the same one she wore in March of this year, when she and the President attended an official dinner hosted by El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes. President Obama wore a dark suit--for both occasions. (Above: Mrs. Obama toasts at the Funes dinner)

For all Presidential couples, the receiving line is a grueling holiday tradition. The President and Mrs. Obama are on their feet for hours as they greet their guests in the ground floor Diplomatic Reception Room. It is set up like a photo studio, with big lights and white silk screens, where guests pose with the First Couple. The receiving line is conducted with military precision; dozens of uniformed aides are on hand to escort guests through the heady gauntlet.

A lavish but traditional American menu...designed to be eaten without the use of a knife...
The kitchen staff, led by Executive Chef Cris Comerford, works far more than overtime during the holidays, producing a staggering amount of food. Like every meal at the White House, the incredible holiday buffets, served simultaneously in both the East Room and in the State Dining Room, spotlight American regional foods. (Above: Assistant chef David Larson works the carving station; the blurry guest is Carl Anthony, a well-known First Lady historian)

The menu was designed so guests could enjoy it without the use of knives: Due to Presidential security concerns, knives are forbidden at holiday receptions (knives are allowed at events such as State Dinners, however). Honey-baked ham and roasted turkey served from a carving station in the East Room were very thinly sliced by assistant chef David Larson, the only man for miles around who held a knife. The ham was accompanied by a sharp mustard sauce, with gravy and a sweet and spicy cranberry sauce for the turkey.

Stuffing is served at the carving station, too, in a unique form: It's molded into balls, an innovation created during the Bush Administration, according to Larson. who said that more than 12,000 stuffing balls were made for this year's parties. These were frozen in advance, and then cooked each day. They're wildly popular, he noted. And tasty, too, I might add. (Above: A bowl of stuffing balls)

The laden buffet tables were constantly replenished by black-clad serving staff. There were dishes of rare roast beef cut into bite-size chunks, also due to the no-knife policy. Bowls of baby roasted potatoes with garlic sat beside platters of potato pancakes with scallions.

Oysters on the half shell, shrimp, and Stone crab claws awaited retrieval from atop bowls of ice, accompanied by a spicy cocktail sauce and a gourmet version of tartar sauce. Last year, the White House ordered more than 2,000 pounds of Gulf seafood for the holiday parties, but ordering quantities for this year were not announced. (Above: A tray of Oysters beside a bowl of shrimp and Stone crab claws. Potato pancakes and smoked salmon are in the background)

Rolls of smoked salmon were on triple-tiered serving trees, surrounded by bowls with capers, sliced red onions, red tomato chutney, and a lemon dill sauce.

Of course there were plenty of vegetables served. Roasted green beans, carrots, and root vegetables were accompanied by a creamy garlic sauce, while crisp steamed vegetables, which included yellow and white carrots as well as asparagus, baby eggplant, and green beans, were served with a mustard sauce and a cream sauce. A salad of romaine, frisee, and radicchio with blue cheese, walnuts and a champagne vinaigrette was offered, too. Dinner rolls were on each buffet table, as were platters with a rich selection of artisanal cheese, accompanied by whole grain crackers, dried dates and nuts, and fresh strawberries.

The menu is the same for every reception, with the exception of the President and Mrs. Obama's Hanukkah party, which had a special Kosher menu. More than 550 guests attended, including Members of Congress and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. No oysters, shrimp, or ham were anywhere in evidence, of course...and a Rabbi provided the koshering services for the kitchen.

The White House holiday parties would not be possible without the invention of freezing. The seafood is delivered to the White House, "fresh" frozen, and stored in two huge outdoor walk-in freezers. The hundreds of pounds of dough used for the thousands of holiday cookies that are served is also frozen. The pastry shop makes the dough months ahead of the holidays, according to Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses. The decorated sweet dough cookies are cut into all kinds of holiday shapes, including cookies shaped like Bo, which are the most popular. (Above: Roast beef)

Some of the holiday receptions are for specific groups; the one I attended was for journalists. Other parties have no particular "theme" or identifiable group of guests. But at every reception, top White House officials mingle with the revelers, putting the social occasion to good use. "Oh yes, I'm at all of these," Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass told me, before we had a long talk about farm policy with Jerry Hagstrom, an acclaimed agriculture journalist. Mrs. Obamas COS, Tina Tchen, was also working the State Floor, as were many other aides. (Above: Kass and Hagstrom)

The White House is the most historic living museum in America, but during holiday parties, velvet ropes are removed, and guests can roam the State Floor, free to enjoy their dinner while sitting on the priceless antiques in the Green Room and the Red Room, as well as almost everywhere else. A very merry US Marine Corps orchestra, clad in red dress uniforms with gold braid, was installed in the Grand Foyer, playing holiday carols among the soaring pillars and Christmas trees that glitter in the marble hall.

The dessert buffet...
Pie is THE favored dessert at the White House, a culinary detail that is freely shared by everyone from the President and First Lady to policy aides who have nothing to do with the kitchen. (Above: The dessert table in the East Room; a berry pie is in front)

"The President loooooves pie," Mrs. Obama said on Monday.

The beautiful pastry tables included a tart Berry Pie and the now-legendary White House Apple Pie.

There was also a Berry Crumble topped with a cinnamon topping, and Sticky Toffee Pudding, a rich steamed dessert made with sponge cake covered with toffee sauce. There was Coconut Cake, Gingerbread Cake, Vanilla Yule Log, Strawberry Shortcake piled high with whipped cream and fresh strawberries, and Pumpkin Cake. Opera Cake and Tiramisu were served in tiny squares. An array of tiny chocolates was also on offer, including dark chocolates in the shape of cats and mice with red and green ribbon tails, as well as penguins. Dark and light chocolate balls were also piled in dishes. (Above: Berry Pie)

There were plenty of other cookies, too, besides those shaped like Bo. Caramel Clusters with pecans were addictive, and there were also moist and airy Macaroons in multiple flavors, including green tea, espresso and vanilla. (Above: A guest's dessert selections. In front is Opera Cake and Tiramisu; in back is Gingerbread Cake, cookies, and chocolates. Macaroons are in the background)

I witnessed one of the evening-gown clad guests, who perhaps had had a bit too much of the very creamy Egg Nog that was being served, drop a large piece of berry pie on the priceless rug in the State Dining Room.

Three black-clad staffers materialized immediately, armed with spray bottles and towels to mitigate the damage. The mess was gone in an instant. Newly installed Chief Usher Angela Reid seemed to be everywhere, not only overseeing the repair of such potential domestic disasters, but also greeting guests and spreading good cheer. Not in uniform, and not wearing a name tag, she went largely unrecognized, though she is a history maker, the first woman ever to be appointed Chief Usher. (Above: Coconut Cake, with Strawberry Shortcake in the background at left, and Caramel Clusters at right)

Daniel Shanks
, the food and beverage manager who is better known as the White House wine steward, also seemed to be everywhere at once. Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard was with the President and Mrs. Obama in the Diplomatic Reception Room.

White House bottle service...
A full bar was set up in the East Room, manned by very friendly bartenders who not only poured drinks, but also performed double duty as shutterbugs. All evening, guests were handing over their cameras, so they could be photographed against the backdrop of the glittery East Room, which has Christmas trees that feature natural crystals as ornaments.

The wines that were poured, as is tradition at the White House, were American, and included a 2010 Chardonnay from Cardiff vineyards in California, and a 2009 Cuvée, a Pinot Noir from Anne Amie, a vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The beer was also American, and included Yuengling Light from Pennsylvania and India Pale Ale from Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales in Delaware. Even some of the spirits were American: Hangar 1 vodka, from California, was among the pours, as was Jack Daniels whisky from Tennessee. Wait staff roamed the halls, carrying trays of champagne flutes, as well as non-alcoholic fruit punch.

The holiday receptions finish today. In addition to the thousands of guests who attended the parties, about 85,000 guests viewed the White House decor during daily tours.

On Friday, the First Lady will depart with daughters Malia and Sasha for the First Family's annual Christmas vacation in Hawaii. President Obama has pledged to remain in town until Congress finishes its business. (Above: The savory buffet table in the State Dining Room, with the cheese tray visible in the foreground)

*White House Holiday recipes: Pumpkin Cake with Orange Cream Cheese icing is here. The recipe for Holiday Apple Cake with Maple Glaze is here; the recipe for Holiday Honey Cupcakes is here; the recipe for Holiday Gingerbread Cookies is here; the recipe for Holiday Sweet Dough Butter Cookies is here.

Fun stuff: Download the 2011 White House Holiday Tour Book [PDF].  CLICK HERE for all 2011 White House holiday posts. CLICK HERE for all Holiday Photos of the Day.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama, except for the photo of the First Lady; that's by Pete Souza/White House.