PARIS – May 29, 2024 – From cooking for dictators to accommodating Barack Obama’s love of cheese, a unique collection of French state dinner menus is offering a culinary window into 150 years of diplomatic history.

The 4,000-plus menus were displayed in Paris before heading to auction this Friday, with the oldest menu dating back to an imperial dinner hosted by Napoleon III in 1868, still marked by wine stains from the evening.

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Collected obsessively by Lyons-based chef Christophe Marguin, these menus document a historical who’s who of royalty, statesmen, and dictators, including John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, and even the recent state banquet at Versailles for King Charles III.

Auctioned by the Millon auction house, the menus carry estimated prices ranging from €10 to €1,500 per lot. Some menus, like the one for US President Jimmy Carter, feature artistic touches, such as an original lithograph by painter Marc Chagall.

The collection offers more than just a glimpse into the sumptuous dishes served at these high-profile events; it also hints at the intricate logistics behind state dinners. One notable incident involves former US President Barack Obama during the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in 2014.

After enjoying a blue lobster salad and grilled sea bass, Obama requested a cheese course that wasn’t on the tightly scheduled menu, almost causing a diplomatic incident, according to auctioneer Alexandre Millon.

Managing these logistics pales in comparison to some of the grand events of the past. A meal for 23,000 local mayors held in the Tuileries Gardens in 1900 required seven kilometers of tablecloth, 125,000 plates, 600 cooks, 2,200 servers, 2,000 kilos of salmon, 1,200 liters of mayonnaise, and 39,000 bottles of wine.

“We see the evolution of international relations through these menus,” said Millon. “Visits at the end of the 19th century were much rarer and therefore exceptional events, often featuring multiple meals at the Elysée and sometimes at Versailles, accompanied by military parades and opera or theatre performances.”

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The menus also reveal subtle diplomatic messages. In 1897, as France sought close ties with both Russia and Britain, the dinner for Russian Tsar Nicolas II included Sturgeon from the Volga and “Ananas a la Victoria,” a pineapple dessert named after the British queen. Such details highlight the delicate balancing act of international diplomacy.

French presidents typically have the final say on the menu, but there is often a collaborative process to ensure it suits the guests’ preferences. During one visit, Queen Elizabeth II was given two choices – with foie gras or without – to accommodate her environmentally-conscious son Charles.

“But it was the queen who decided, and clearly she liked foie gras, so it stayed in,” Millon recounted. As the menus go under the hammer, they offer more than a record of opulent meals; they provide a unique lens through which to view the history of international diplomacy and the evolution of statecraft.

From Napoleon III’s era to modern times, these menus are a testament to the enduring importance of culinary diplomacy in shaping global relations.

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