Nothing impresses your business associates or cements a burgeoning alliance like a slap-up meal. Feasts, banquets, and dinner parties have signaled power, affluence and superior social status for centuries. The story is the same, be they the decadent bashes of Imperial Rome, the male-only ‘think tanks’ of 7th century B.C. Greece, or the elegantly sedate state banquets that even today keep the Windsor Castle and White House kitchens buzzing.

True, some key elements have changed…and quite drastically You’re unlikely to be invited to a medieval feast where naked guests huddle together in a swinging bathtub set alongside a groaning banquet table. (Communal bathing was practically de rigueur back then.) And hopefully you won’t witness the unseemly food fights once so popular at Versailles, or require a trusted knight to taste your food for poison like those serving King Charles VI.

One famous chef put Martha Stewart’s perfectionism in the shade by killing himself after receiving an inferior piece of fish he couldn’t possibly face serving to Louis XIV. Yes, hospitality could be a really deadly business. Nero was one jolly Roman who relished seeing a guest – even his own brother Britannicus – poisoned, then watching him writhe in agony at the table while he happily munched on a delicacy like roast dormice spiced up with honey and poppy seeds.

Versailles, the height of opulence, was guaranteed to impress France’s neighbours in the ultra competitive European banquet culture. No culinary or festive challenge was too great. In a fairytale environment created for an outdoor party in 1668, for instance, potted orange trees were hung with candied oranges. Delectable pyramids and palaces were also fashioned from crystallized fruit, marzipan and pastry.

Mercifully, the enormously popular medieval party trick in which living creatures wriggled out of pies, has disappeared. But raised pies were filled with bran or dry cereal which, after baking, was all shaken out though a hole cut in the base.

“Then you popped your birds, frogs, snakes, or whatever you used, into the pie through the hole,” says Nichola Fletcher, author of Charlemagne’s Tablecloth, A Piquant History of Feasting. “And when the pie lid was lifted, the creatures flew/hopped/wriggled out. Not very P.C. today! There are many descriptions of using animals (piglets, even) in pies at feasts.” Musicians, jesters or dwarves also leapt out to entertain crowds. “But nobody actually got baked, you will be relieved to hear,” Fletcher laughs.

Fletcher, who found records of cannibalistic banquets of Fiji, New Guinea and the Aztecs, encountered the tempting and the repulsive. She loved the sound of the ambience at 17th Century Persian court feasts, “With their fabulous flavours (e.g. venison cooked in walnuts and pomegranate juice), perfumes, sweetmeats, fabrics and use of gold & precious stones. But as a woman I couldn’t have gone!”

Late Stone Age dishes favoured by some North American Indians for ceremonial affairs qualify as revolting: “The Kwakiutl potlatch feast: dried cranberries soused in fish oil followed by several fathoms of seal blubber nibbled off the skin. Easy to prepare – hard to eat…”

Thankfully, modern menus are comparatively simple. Yet experts contend that there’s little straightforward about even today’s seemingly informal social gatherings. It’s all power plays and hidden agendas, as rivals are impressed and allies affirmed. Jesse Browner, author of The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down, An Informal History of Hospitality, thinks hospitality is about control and that the host always has the upper hand.

He has his own ulterior motives when he prepares divinely enticing lamb salad sandwiches for the guests at his Manhattan poker nights. He confesses that his hospitality is a Trojan horse camouflaging his true goal: to so distract his guests that he beats them at poker. To Browner, ego is central to jockeying for social position.

“Inclusion is power,” he explains, “and the power to exclude is more intoxicating still. It doesn’t matter whether the inclusion is to a mafia social club, an exclusive country club, or nights in the Lincoln bedroom, the principle is always, and always has been, the same.”

He’s not remotely surprised by how much of the old system remains. “I find it almost impossible to imagine a complex society’s being able to exist without it,” he says. “This is not about snobbery – it exists at every level of society, even the lowliest. It is about the very meaning of the individual’s standing in a society of social animals.”

One upmanship is rampant. In the mid 1400s, after King Edward IV hosted a 50 course banquet, the Earl of Warwick tried to outdo him with 60 courses. With no Spendaholics Anonymous meetings available, it fell to sumptuary laws to curb such extravagance. Some laws specified a maximum number of courses. King Richard II of England’s wild spending was reined in thus.16th century Hungary’s official banquets were also tightly regulated.

The marriage between dining and peace or power brokering favoured by politicians, presidents, prime ministers and social strategists seems literally indestructible.

“It’s no coincidence,” says Jesse Browner, “that many of the world’s more sensitive alliances and accords are forged not in government offices but in the ‘private’ homes of the world’s leaders (e.g., Camp David, Checkers, Yalta). Very simply, the more people you know, the greater your reach.” That’s equally true at Versailles or a peace summit. And ditto with Browner’s own literary circle, “Where the only thing that separates you from the thousands of would-be participants is the fact that you have met – at dinners, parties, clubs, etc. – the people who are in a position to help you.”

 “Sharing food has long had the connotation of truce, peace and (more or less) civilized behaviour,” agrees psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, PhD, author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. “Guests at dinner are supposed to be assured of good treatment and respect. The host has an opportunity to demonstrate his opulence, the guests are constrained to behave properly, and it provides an informal, neutral setting for communication.”

Power is invariably part of the mix and there are plenty of signals to prove it, says Tessina: “How the host is regarded by a restaurant’s staff, or how much staff he has at home, indicates power. Men who choose to host a dinner at a private club or gentleman’s club can cause women to be uncomfortable with the setting and thereby demonstrate power over them, or even exclude them. A lavish party, perhaps on a private yacht or in an exotic setting, also displays the host’s power, influence and wealth. And such events can also be used as perks to lure the best executives away from one firm to another.”

In December 1941, Britain’s Winston Churchill paid a 3-week visit to president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, staying in the White House. Realistically, Churchill was very much the one doing the wooing, but that didn’t stop him turning into a houseguest from hell.

University of Calgary history professor David Bercuson who, with his co-author Holger Herwig, wrote One Christmas in Washington: The Secret Meeting Between Roosevelt and Churchill That Changed The World, notes Churchill’s brazenness with his list of gastronomic demands.

He imbibed sherry in his room each morning before his favoured breakfast of hot eggs, bacon or ham and toast, cold cuts with English mustard and two varieties of fruit. He also tippled around the clock – and he temporarily set aside his disdain for the world famous American martini. “His idea of a great accommodation,” laughs Bercuson.

Was Churchill really so wedded to having his food fancies met or were his demands merely a metaphor for a much larger power play? Although FDR held the power cards, it was vital for Churchill to keep up his self-advertised image as the centre of the universe.

“I don’t think it was a matter of, ‘Well, I like brandy, I don’t like port,’” says Bercuson. “It was, ‘I’ll have it my way.’ It really was a power game.”

Nitty gritty business took place behind closed doors. The dinner table was used more for positioning. Bercuson was fascinated by the dynamics when Churchill and Roosevelt dined together.

“There was a lot of, you wouldn’t even call it good-natured bantering,” he says. “In some cases, it wasn’t even all that good-natured.” Roosevelt poked at Churchill’s imperial sense, while Churchill retaliated with critiques of American life.

Successfully climbing the social ladder has always required more than the ability to make a passably decent cheese sandwich. In April 1972, America’s first female Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright – then still a Georgetown housewife – organized a black tie dinner for 3,000 democrats at the Washington Hilton to honour presidential hopeful, Edward S. Muskie.

Albright’s calm was shaken by the mystifying arrival of six African ambassadors in full tribal regalia, carrying invitations. Then crates of alcohol, floral bouquets and even 200 pizzas also began arriving, along with demands for payment.

The mystery went unsolved until Republican operative Donald Segretti’s 1973 confession that acting for the Committee to Re-Elect the President, he’d tried disrupting Albright’s dinner to stir up mistrust among the democrats. His ploy backfired. Albright had proved herself unflappable.

The late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother exhibited great diplomacy by writing a commemorative thank-you note to Mrs. Roosevelt a year after she and King George VI paid a visit to the U.S. She wrote although the Brits had been welcomed with an all-American hotdog and hamburger cookout that left them completely cold. Eleanor’s contemporaneous diary entry said it all. “The Queen would not eat a hot dog,” she wrote. “She said her mouth was too small.”

Today’s White House protocol officers are at great pains to avoid offending any honoured guests. Months in advance, the questions begin. Would alcohol or floral table centrepieces be welcome or taboo? It’s all quite a minefield really. Chrysanthemums are flowers of death in Japan, and in China, white is the colour of mourning. Who knew?

President Jacques Chirac and his wife visited the UK in November 2004 to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, Britain and France’s friendship pact. Six months of planning went into the banquet at Windsor Castle’s St. George’s Hall. The long mahogany table was polished until it glistened, then meticulously set for 136 guests. Spaces between chairs were measured to be exactly equidistant – an old ritual still observed. Finally, a butler wearing soft, British Airways-acquired socks climbed up on the tabletop and walked its length, lighting candles.

In perhaps the ultimate act of discreet diplomacy, The Waterloo Chamber was tactfully renamed The Music Room for that one night, and paintings of the generals most notable for helping Wellington defeat the French were quietly removed from the walls.

President John F. Kennedy and his First Lady were certainly hospitable, hosting countless events including a legendary evening for 49 Nobel Prize winners, known by staff as the ‘brains dinner’. But Bill and Hillary Clinton really opened the White House floodgates and Mrs. Clinton quickly moved in top American chef, Walter Scheib. Formerly, French style serving had guests reaching over their shoulders to help themselves to food from tureens. However, after two elderly guests in a single week ended up with food in their laps, this challenging style was swiftly replaced with the more diner-friendly American style of having ready-made plates brought to the table.

The White House’s State Dining Room could only seat about 125 people to the East Room’s 260, so the Clintons favoured it for formal diners. For even bigger events, they erected tents on the lawn. The unstuffy couple often sacrificed formality for fun with the president once donned a black leather jacket and jeans to a surprise 1950s birthday party for his wife. Hillary wore a poodle skirt and they jitterbugged the night away.

Hillary, author of, An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History, was well aware of the weight of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s past. “Sometimes, late at night,” she wrote, “as I walk through the halls of the White House, I think of all the historic issues that have been debated and resolved under this roof, from Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis planning their expedition across the continent to John F. Kennedy planning to put a man on the moon.”

Heaven knows, outrageous excess does still exist in the world, and it can’t all be laid at Donald Trump’s feet. Delhi native Lakshmi Mittal, an investment banker ranked the world’s 3rd richest man by Forbes, spent around $55 million in 2004 for five days of festivities for the 1,500 guests at his daughter Vanisha’s wedding. Celebrations began at the 17th century stately home Vaux le Vicomte then moved to Versailles. And former Tyco head, Dennis Kozlowski (since disgraced and imprisoned), threw his wife Karen a now-notorious $2.1 million 40th birthday extravaganza in Sardinia. Expensive, yes, but hardly classy.

Sparklers fizzed from the breasts of a giant cake shaped like a woman. And Stoli vodka was dispensed from the male appendage of an ice sculpture rendition of Michelangelo’s David. It looked for all the world as if David was peeing into crystal glasses. Worse, these festivities, we now know, took place on the company dime.

Like hosts and hostesses the world over, staff at the White House, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle all labour over the ever-delicate business of seating plans. Louis XIV’s Versailles grappled constantly with the problem given the 1,000 courtiers and 4,000 attendants living inside the chateau. Tiers of tables delineated social standing and different menus were served to each. Chairs with and without arms or backs also denoted social rank.

To Jesse Browner, Versailles’ cramped conditions were, “Mostly a small price to pay for the opportunity to see and be seen among the nation’s elite and to savour the perks of Europe’s most elegant court society. We might not enjoy having to change our clothes five times a day and scuttle around the grounds spreading flattery and gossip, but who knows what we would have felt in the presence of the Sun King? Or worse, being excluded from it?”

In 2006, very similar principles govern power placements in dining, from Manhattan’s 21 Club and Michael’s restaurant to Hong Kong’s Cipriani’s and HK Club. And every businessperson worth their salt knows exactly which restaurant tables rank as social outer Siberia. Of course, dinner party hosts can also manoeuvre via their seating plans.

“A wise and clever host (or protocol officer) can arrange seating strategically,” notes Dr. Tessina, “so certain people are either coerced into conversation by being placed together, or prevented from conversation by being separated, or given the opportunity for private chat by proximity. It’s a pleasant setting, often private and exclusive, which makes it safe to discuss sensitive information. And it’s a relaxed atmosphere which tends to ‘soften up’ the guests and psychologically influence them to favour the deal.”

Bottom line, it would be strange if deals weren’t forged and agreements weren’t reached over dinner. Precisely how many deals are brokered is impossible to quantify, of course, and bridge-building and peace-making can be quite subtle.

“Ah, this is a delicate matter,” adds Dr. Tessina. “In these high-powered state affairs, everyone is usually well-versed in diplomacy (America’s present administration possibly excepted) and the conversation is often couched in symbolism, double entendres and veiled references. Points are made and taken in roundabout terms. It is not considered polite to talk too overtly about state matters at dinner – it is supposed to be a break from meetings and councils, but it is an opportunity to get and deliver information in a low-key way.”

At every level of society, entertainment loosens up guests and helps break any tension. Thomas Jefferson, who played host almost nightly, was very aware of its value. And as Hillary Clinton has observed, “Some of the most successful diplomacy happens not at the negotiating table but after dinner, during the evening’s featured entertainment.” It’s a match made in social heaven and after centuries of success, it’s not likely to change any time soon.

Asia Tatler magazine, 2006
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Sue Russell
Sue Russell