Obamas welcome guests with curry at state dinner

WASHINGTON (AP) - November 24, 2009 Pumpkin was on the menu, too, with Tuesday's dinner coming just two days before Thanksgiving.

Hours before guests arrived and in keeping with tradition, first lady Michelle Obama previewed the glamorous table settings in the State Dining Room. That's often the venue for such dinners, but not for Tuesday's honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Instead, in an effort to show Singh how much the U.S. values relations with his country, the Obamas decided to serve dinner for 339 people in a huge white tent on the South Lawn, with views of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial through clear panels. Magnolia branches native to both India and the U.S. adorn the inside walls, along with ivy and nandina foliage.

Guests, including some Hollywood A-listers, were to sit 10 apiece at tables draped in green apple-colored cloths and napkins, offset by the sparkle of gold-colored flatware and china, including service and dinner plates from the Eisenhower, Clinton and George W. Bush settings.

Floral arrangements of hydrangeas, roses and sweet peas in plum, purple and fuschia were meant to evoke India's state bird.

Mrs. Obama brought in award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant in New York City, to help White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford and her staff prepare the largely vegetarian meal. Singh is a vegetarian.

Samuelsson said being chosen to help whip up dinner was both "overwhelming and humbling."

The culinary offerings included potato and eggplant salad, arugula from the White House garden, red lentil soup and roasted potato dumplings or green curry prawns. Pumpkin pie tart and pear tatin were for dessert; the pears were poached in honey from the White House beehive.

The entertainment lineup promised to be as stellar.

Singer-actress Jennifer Hudson and jazz vocalist and composer Kurt Elling, both Grammy Award winners from the Obamas' hometown of Chicago, were performing. Hudson also won an Academy Award for her role in "Dreamgirls." Indian musician and singer A.R. Rahman, who won two Academy Awards for the music in "Slumdog Millionaire," also was in the lineup.

The guest list, which the White House released a few hours before dinner was to begin, was a mix of wonky Washington, Hollywood A-listers, prominent figures from the Indian community in the U.S., and Obama friends, family and campaign donors.

Among them were actors Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood, and Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Guests with ties to India included spiritual adviser Deepak Chopra, director M. Night Shyamalan and PepsiCo chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi. Katie Couric of CBS News, Brian Williams of NBC News, Robin Roberts of ABC News and CNN Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta were among the media representatives invited. Oprah Winfrey was not on the list, but her best friend, Gayle King, was among the guests. Also expected were Obama friends Eric Whitaker and Martin Nesbitt, along with Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and her husband, Konrad; and Marian Robinson, the first lady's mother.

Every aspect of Tuesday's events was fraught with meaning and symbolism, from the flower colors to Mrs. Obama's clothing designers.

For the dinner, Mrs. Obama wore a sleeveless, gold and cream colored sheath dress with an overlay of silver and matching shawl, by Indian-born designer Naeem Khan. The president wore at tuxedo. At the State Dining Room event earlier in the day, the first lady wore a skirt by Rachel Roy, who is Indian.

The biggest social event of the Obama White House also was a debut of sorts for florist Laura Dowling, who's been on the job less than a month.

Mrs. Obama also used the traditional preview event as a "teachable moment" for high schools girls participating in a White House mentoring program. They sat at two prepared tables as White House and State Department officials explained what state dinners are all about.

Afterward, Mrs. Obama sat at one of the tables and everyone dived in to dessert - the same fare being served guests at the state dinner.

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