President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden are poised to hold a luxurious, tented state dinner for India Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday evening at the White House, featuring a plant-based meal for their honored guest, who is a vegetarian. The stuffed portobello mushroom main course is a clever diplomatic gesture for President Biden, who is a notorious finicky eater. Biden’s willingness to eat his vegetables while hosting Modi demonstrates the significance he placed on cultivating the US-India relationship, a critical component of his Asia strategy, despite Modi’s troubling human rights record and move toward authoritarianism.
In response, Modi has consented to a one-on-one joint press conference with Biden following their discussions, the outcome of extensive, careful negotiations between the two parties. While not identical, the two gestures show that they are both willing to offer a little. Rights groups and opposition MPs have criticized Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for its more harsh style of Hindu nationalist politics and a continuous crackdown on dissent. A group of more than 70 congressmen signed a letter to Biden ahead of the travel encouraging him to bring up human rights concerns during the visit, which White House officials have stated the president will do.
Jill Biden welcomed Modi to the US National Science Foundation in neighboring Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday for a discussion on workforce development, an area where the two countries seek to strengthen cooperation. “With this official visit, we are bringing together the world’s oldest and largest democracies,” Biden said during the panel discussion, hailing the US-India’s “deep and expansive” alliance. Modi, for his part, lauded the first lady: “Your life, your hard work, and your achievements are all a source of inspiration for everyone,” he remarked through a translator.
The Bidens hosted Modi for a private dinner in the evening, when they presented him with an old book galley, a vintage American camera, and a signed, first edition copy of “Collected Poems of Robert Frost.” The ceremonial White House arrival ceremony on Thursday will begin with the formal pomp and circumstance of a military review, a rendition of both countries’ national anthems, and speeches from both leaders of state. Biden and Modi will then retire to the Oval Office for bilateral talks before their press conference.
Then, in the evening, the White House social team, the East Wing, and the State Department will begin to arrive for the glitzy, black tie state dinner, the result of weeks of meticulous planning by the White House social team, the East Wing, and the State Department, weaving American and Indian cultural elements and traditions into the décor, entertainment, and menu.
According to the first lady’s office, the meal will be place under a “translucent pavilion structure,” with views of the White House, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Washington Monument, as well as greens and saffron honoring the Indian flag. Both Biden and Modi will make toasts with a backdrop honoring their respective national birds, the bald eagle and the peacock.
According to White House social secretary Carlos Elizondo, the peacock inspired much of the design. “We want it to elicit that breath-taking sensation when it extends its tail, revealing its colorful beauty, majesty, and spirit,” he explained.
The tables will be adorned with brilliant pink and orange blossoms, candles, and lotus flower emblems designed by the White House staff in collaboration with David Stark Design and Production. “Each table arrangement is warm and one-of-a-kind.” During a preview of the event, Biden said, “We hope guests feel as if someone has set their table just for them – because we have.” Jill Biden tried to make Thursday’s large-scale event feel intimate, according to Elizondo: “She’s been involved in this event at every step of the way, and every element of the dinner and décor has been chosen to make each guest experience personal and warm.”
Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell, the University of Pennsylvania’s “Penn Masala” South Asian student a cappella group, and “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band Chamber Orchestra will perform. Nina Curtis, a plant-based chef from Sacramento, California, created the cuisine in collaboration with White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford and White House Executive Pastry Chef Susie Morrison.
“We have curated a menu that really showcases the best of American cuisine seasoned with Indian elements and flavors,” Curtis said to reporters, adding that the meal will allow guests from both countries “to experience something of the other’s culture.” The first meal will be seasoned millet and grilled maize with crushed watermelon and a zesty avocado sauce. Stuffed portobello mushrooms with saffron-infused risotto will be the main course. Dessert will be a strawberry shortcake flavored with rose and cardamom. A main course of sumac-roasted sea bass will be provided upon request for supper guests wishing a non-vegetarian option. The first lady giggled when asked if her husband would choose the fish. “We’ll see,” she explained.