Harlem, New York - First Lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday paid tribute to black history as she hosted a luncheon for spouses of Chiefs of State and Heads of Government attending the 68th United Nations General Assembly, treating her 49 guests to an arts program at The Studio Museum, which included a command performance by Broadway star Audra McDonald.
The spouses of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and at least one King and one Prince from countries as varied as Monaco, Pakistan, Ghana, and Poland joined Mrs. Obama at the acclaimed museum, which after being founded in 1968 by community activists now has a permanent collection that represents more than 200 years of work by artists of African descent. It is in the center of Harlem's commercial strip on West 125th Street, and Mrs. Obama last visited in 2011.
The menu--hailed by Mrs. Obama as "culturally exciting"--continued her theme, and featured embroideries on traditional African American dishes, including shrimp, dirty rice, collard greens, and cornbread. It was created by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who has cooked multiple times at the White House for Mrs. Obama and President Barack Obama.
Clad in a blue and white cap-sleeved silk dress by designer Carolina Herrera, the First Lady proclaimed Harlem "quintessentially American" as she welcomed her guests, standing against a backdrop of vibrant art.
"There's a reason why I wanted to bring you all to Harlem today," Mrs. Obama said. "And that is because this community...is infused with a kind of energy and passion that is quintessentially American, but that has also touched so many people around the world."
Explaining Harlem's role as the heart of black culture in the early twentieth century, Mrs. Obama noted it was home to "some of the greatest African-American artists that our country has ever known: Painters like Aaron Douglas; writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston; musicians like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington."
“Many of these men and women left the South just a couple of generations after the end of slavery, and they were desperate to find a place where they could explore their talents and express their ideas freely,” she said. “This moment in history came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.”
Their influence was felt in Europe and beyond, Mrs. Obama said, and noted that Hughes' famous poem 'Dreams' has "inspired young people from so many nations." She quoted a line from the poem: "Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly."
"So in a way, this neighborhood is a thread that connects all of us here today, no matter where we’re from or what language we speak," Mrs. Obama said.
The First Lady and her guests dined at six tables in the museum's white-walled main gallery, surrounded by life-size portraits of African American women by Houston-based artist Robert Pruitt, in an exhibition titled 'Calling...women.'
Pointing to Pruitt's crayon and charcoal on butcher paper creations, which depict black women in his Texas neighborhood and incorporate elements of science fiction and Hip Hop culture, Mrs. Obama gave a call to action.
"All of us can agree on the importance of the subject he chose to focus on--in fact, I know that many of you have devoted significant time and effort to improving the lives of women and girls in your countries."
"This is an issue I also care deeply about, especially when it comes to education," Mrs. Obama continued, noting the many girls she has met during her travels abroad are "hungry" to be educated.
"When both boys and girls have an equal opportunity to learn--we all know that’s not just good for our children, it’s also good for their families and it's good for their countries as well," Mrs. Obama said.
The First Lady urged her guests to discuss their work as they conversed over lunch.
"I want you all to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity that we have together. Don’t be shy," Mrs. Obama said. "Make sure that you talk to the ladies at your table about the great work that you’re doing in your countries, because you are all doing some wonderfully powerful work. Ask others about what they’re doing in their countries."
Mrs. Obama sat at Table #3 between Mrs. Yoo (Ban) Soon-taek, wife of UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon, and the Queen of Tonga, Queen Nanasipauʻu Tukuʻaho. Also at her table were Mrs. Marta Linares de Martinelli, First Lady of the Republic of Panama; Mrs. Wafaa Sleiman, First Lady of Lebanon; Mrs. Evelin Ilves, First Lady of Estonia; Mrs. Emine Gülbaran, wife of the Prime Minister of Turkey; Mrs. Penehupifo Pohamba, First Lady of Namibia; and museum Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden.
Mrs. Ban got a shout-out from Mrs. Obama as "one of my favorite people;" President Obama was almost simultaneously having lunch with the Secretary-General at the United Nations. Secretary of State John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz-Kerry, was also among the guests, as was Princess Charlene of Monaco, wife of Prince Albert II, and Valérie Trierweiler, who is the Domestic Partner (girlfriend) of French President François Hollande.
Samuelsson's Red Rooster luncheon menu...
The choice of Samuelsson to create the menu was also an homage to Harlem: His Red Rooster restaurant is around the corner from the museum. Mrs. Obama has dined there and told her guests it is "one of my favorites."
Though she described the luncheon menu as "very delicious and culturally exciting," Mrs. Obama said that Samuelsson did not do the actual cooking: "He couldn’t be here today."
Prepared by Red Rooster staff and served by uniform-clad representatives of all five branches of the Armed Forces, the menu started with an arugula salad with roasted apples, cornbread croutons and pecans, with a chanterelle mushroom vinaigrette. That was followed by shrimp and dirty rice with pumpkin sauce, collard greens and curry leaves.
Dessert was a banana pudding parfait, with Huckleberry sauce and almond cookies.
Samuelsson, who hosted a fundraiser at Red Rooster for President Obama in 2011 during his race for reelection, was the first guest chef Mrs. Obama invited to cook a State Dinner at the White House, in 2009 when President Obama welcomed India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He also joined Mrs. Obama for a recipe demonstration at the 2012 Easter Egg Roll, which came on the heels of filming a White House video for the campaign. Most recently, he joined Mrs. Obama in February of this year for a Let's Move!-themed appearance on Good Morning America.
A small orchestra played selections from Mahler and Mozart as the guests dined, and then McDonald sang as they were finishing. She has won five Tony Awards and two Grammy Awards during her long career. Mrs. Obama told her guests that Mcdonald "is one of my dear friends" and "has the voice of an angel."
McDonald performed at the White House in February of this year during the President and Mrs. Obama's annual black tie dinner for the nation's Governors.
"Just sang for FLOTUS then walked outside up two blocks and passed a man pooping on the sidewalk. #onlyinNY," McDonald tweeted after the luncheon.
The guests were also treated to performances by members of the chamber music class at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, and by students and company members from Dance Theatre of Harlem. (Above, Mrs. Obama greeting the young dancers before they performed)
"It is such a pleasure to be able to showcase young talent, and to give them this kind of forum to show their hard work," Mrs. Obama said.
Gifts from the Kitchen Garden...
For a hostess gift, Mrs. Obama sent each guest home with a basket filled with specially made goodies from her signature Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn.
It included a jar of White House Honey Butter, created by Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses with fresh honey from the White House Beehive. There were also aromatic tea satchets made with lemon verbena from the garden, harvested specifically for the occasion in late summer and then dried, according to the East Wing. There were two more little jars of honey to accompany the tea, as well as a custom pewter honey pot made by Salisbury Pewter, a Maryland company.
A copy of Samuelsson's cookbook New American Table, "a tribute to the diverse cultural influences that have shaped modern American cuisine," was also in each basket. Samuelsson autographed each one, Mrs. Obama told her guests, "just to show his gratitude for all that you all do for this country and this world."
Ahead of the luncheon, Mrs. Obama welcomed her guests in a photo receiving line in the museum's statuary garden, where each was formally announced. There were handshakes, kisses, and brief conversations. Above, with Mrs. Lordina Mahama, First Lady of Ghana.
Mrs. Obama was then joined by five companions as she toured the mezzanine level of the museum, taking in an exhibit titled 'Things in Themselves,' featuring the work of three artists in residence, Steffani Jemison, Jennifer Packer and Cullen Washington Jr.
The White House did not release a full guest list for Mrs. Obama's event. The First Lady attended her husband's morning speech to the UN General Assembly before heading to Harlem for her luncheon, which began at 11:35 AM lasted until after 2:00 PM.
Mrs. Obama arrived in New York City on Monday afternoon with the President, and was scheduled to return to Washington, DC, on Tuesday night at 10:50 PM, after the President attended a fundraising reception for the Democratic National Committee. Held at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, it was closed to press.
*The transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks.
*Dancer photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House; others by pool/AP