Food is an "essential part of diplomacy," says Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall...
By Marian Burros
An unlikely scene unfolded last Tuesday afternoon in the elegant chandelier-lit, Oriental-carpeted reception room of the British Ambassador’s residence in Washington. Bending over tables containing bowls and spoons and measuring cups, 30 children and several adults, dressed in chef’s white, were stirring, measuring, shaping and baking some of England’s best-known sweets. Other adults, hovering in the background, included the newly arrived British Ambassador, Sir Peter Westmacott, his wife, Lady Susie Westmacott, and the U.S. State Department’s Chief of Protocol, Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall. She talked about diplomacy with the kids, who were also treated to a traditional English tea--and a lesson in manners. (Above: Ambassador Marshall, center, with kids during the tea)
The event, part of a State Department program to introduce young Washington area school children to the world of diplomacy, was the sixth in an ongoing series of events that seek to strengthen the cultural ties between the United States and its Allies. This one coincided with the Official Visit of Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Mrs. Samantha Cameron, which began today.
Children and food have become a constant theme in political Washington since Michelle Obama became First Lady. Over the last three years local students have had opportunities to visit places most people, even Washingtonians, never see. The White House kitchen as well as the South Lawn have been the scene of many of Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign events. And Blair House, the President’s Guest House across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, usually hosts the State Department programs for children.
To the children seated on the floor, Marshall said, “For today you are all diplomats” and went on to explain some of the finer points of diplomacy, like the difference between a State Visit – Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – and an Official Visit - British Prime Minister: The former gets a 21 gun salute; the latter firepower is a mere 19 and it will be heard Wednesday during a morning Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House.
Who knew such a State Department sponsored event could produce such delicious results? After the children learned something about people to people relations, they got to have a proper English tea--and a cooking lesson with Chef Craig, the Embassy's culinary mastermind. (Above: Craig and the students at work)
And then chocolate covered shortbread, sconces with clotted cream and fairycakes, - aka cupcakes - were served at white cloth covered tables to the children from the nearby Stoddert Elementary School plus children of Embassy staff. Each had been given a white t-shirt, printed with crossed flags of the USA and the UK and the words “Taste of the United Kingdom” and the date. They were seated on those ubiquitous gold ballroom chairs that turn up at every fancy seated function in Washington.
There was a short course in the etiquette of an English tea that included a napkin folding lesson, and, of course, consumption of perfect examples of English sweets.
In conjunction with the previous official or state visits of Korea, Mexico, India and China, the Office of Protocol at the State Department has arranged these cultural exchanges for young people, and food is always a component.
“It’s an essential part of diplomacy,” said Marshall, who was White House Social Secretary during part of the Clinton Administration.
She said she was inspired by Mrs. Obama to work with children.
Marshall spoke of “the very special relationship” between the two countries, a phrase trotted out whenever Britain and its former colony do something together. And through the magic - and vagaries - of modern electronics the children were semi-connected through Skype to a roomful of students at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, North London, a school that Mrs. Obama had visited in 2009, and again last May. For 60 percent of those students, English is a second language. (Above: The students during the Skype session)
The connection was picture perfect. Sound was another matter. What the English students said was mostly undecipherable. Nothing to do with accents, British or otherwise: Rather the muffled sound.
A few answers came through clearly enough. Asked what their favorite foods are, they gave the most surprising answers: fajitas, spaghetti Bolognese , hot dogs, sausages and mash (potatoes) and gravy. Their teacher added: Fish and chips.
Though the girls in Islington never mentioned it in their fractured conversation with the students sitting in the Embassy, they were keeping a little secret: Six of them arrived in Washington this past Saturday where they have been on a whirlwind tour: Museums, monuments, Georgetown, not to mention a visit to the State Department Monday morning and a visit to Thurgood Marshall Highs School in the afternoon. Three of the 12 visiting students met Mrs. Obama on her 2009 visit to the school, and will see her again at the press preview of the State Dinner on Wednesday afternoon at the White House. They will be served the same dessert that will be served to the State Dinner guests.
With the 2012 election so close, it’s unlikely the Obamas will be holding any more Official or State dinners until sometime after November, so Marshall said she and her staff will be thinking up other occasions to hold these events.
CLICK HERE for links to all posts about the Camerons' visit.
*Photos courtesy of State Department.