Friday 22 September 2017

A French chef, fine china... and beef!

Every last detail was plotted by a State intent on impressing its American guest, writes Elaine Mahon

JFK and Seán Lemass arrive in tuxedos at Iveagh House the night before the dinner at the Aras.
JFK and Seán Lemass arrive in tuxedos at Iveagh House the night before the dinner at the Aras.
Mr and Mrs Lemass, Bean de Valera, JFK, his sister Eunice Shriver and President Éamon de Valera at Áras an Uachtaráin for dinner.
The menu supplied by the caterers for the Iveagh House dinner

'Shrimp cocktail: a teaspoon is used. Seventy four in stock," says a handwritten note in pencil at the top of a cutlery inventory in Iveagh House, home to the Department of External Affairs.

Iveagh House was the chosen venue for the state dinner and reception in honour of JFK which was to be given by Taoiseach Lemass.

This wasn't the first state dinner given in honour of a visiting dignitary. But if ever a meal was a means to convey a host's esteem for a distinguished guest, the evening of June 27 was about to be a shining example.

The precise spot where JFK would disembark from his plane at Dublin Airport or the exact number of minutes that it would take for the motor cavalcade to travel between any two locations were not the only details to be coordinated, counted, measured and chronometered.

There was a flurry of activity in Iveagh House in preparation for the dinner and reception in the weeks beforehand. Lists of the required tableware were drawn up. Glasses, plates, cutlery and tablecloths were counted. Calculations were made as to how many of each would be needed on the night.

The menu as well as the number of guests were yet to be confirmed so lists were estimated "For seventy diners" and "For one hundred diners" or "If two fish courses are served".

Iveagh House and Irish embassies abroad had been supplied with official chinaware and glassware during the fifties. This policy had begun to take shape in the late forties with a view to standardising items across all representations and supporting Irish manufacturers.

By the time JFK's visit came around, the Office of Public Works maintained a stock of tableware from which the Minister for External Affairs kindly requested extra supplies of table linen and cutlery for the state dinner.

Sixty guilt chairs and an extra 12 coffee tables were also needed. Housekeeping noted that the curtains in the main hall might have to be replaced and decided that the hand-tufted carpets should remain in place.

Both caterers, the Russell Hotel and the Civil Service Dining Club, sent sample menus to the Department of External Affairs for consideration. As might be expected, the Russell's menu reflected the cuisine which would see it win Ireland's first Michelin Star a decade later: le foie gras de Strasbourg, consommé double aux profiteroles, Irish lobster timbale, milk-fed Irish lamb.

Ultimately, and on the advice given by JFK's aides that the President preferred lighter fare, Head Chef Pierre Rolland and his brigade served Irish smoked salmon, consommé, Irish beef with new potatoes and peas followed by strawberries and cream.

The Russell also enjoyed exclusive Irish rights to certain French wines. Two were chosen to accompany the meal: a Château le Tuquet 1959 white and a Le Cortin 1959 red. Both were 'grand crus' and extraordinary vintages according to Mary O'Callaghan, President of the Irish Guild of Sommeliers. Chef Rolland was to present a pastillage replica of the PT boat in which JFK had served during World War Two to the American President that night.

"However," recalls his grandson, Irish rugby referee Alain Rolland, "he fell and was on crutches, so he couldn't present it. My father (Henri Rolland) did the presentation and was given a pin of the ship from JFK."

The guest list for the state dinner was a roll call of the senior echelons of Irish life – 79 people were guests of the Taoiseach and Mrs Lemass that evening. The seating plan was subject to a number of revisions.

The invitations to the reception afterwards were extended to include educational institutions, local authorities, the army, Garda Siochana and various state bodies. 440 guests enjoyed a fork-supper buffet of tomato cocktail, salmon mayonnaise, baked ham, an assortment of salads, and a dessert of strawberries and cream provided by the Civil Service Dining Club that night.

Of the 14 Protocols which were drawn up for JFK's visit, Protocol 5 dictated the schedule for that evening. In keeping with protocol, Taoiseach Lemass proposed a toast to the President of the United States and gave his speech just after dessert was served but before it was eaten. President Kennedy then proposed a toast in return.

A seven piece orchestra entertained diners that night. Music was provided by the Irish Transport and General Workers Union Band and the children's choir from the Loreto Convent National School in Dublin's Leeson Lane marked the occasion in song.

In keeping with Protocol 5, the end of dinner was scheduled for 9.30pm when Mrs Lemass was to rise from the table. The reception guests were then received by the Taoiseach and his wife. President Kennedy joined them afterwards and they mingled with guests for an hour. He then left Iveagh House and returned to the US Ambassador's Residence at around 11pm.

Irish Independent

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