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Insider : Of Oysters, Veal and Other Delicate Affairs of State : No matter how intricate the plans for officials visiting the United States, a culinary faux pas can stir up high-level trouble.

July 24, 1990|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For Queen Elizabeth II, it's oysters and raw shellfish. If you're inviting her to dinner, keep them off the menu. "The Queen doesn't eat oysters or uncooked shellfish--it is something that can upset so many people," sniffs a spokeswoman at Buckingham Palace.

For Yitzhak Shamir, prime minister of Israel, kosher dietary laws rule out pork and shellfish, as well as any meal that includes both meat and dairy products. And of course, as everyone now knows, President Bush isn't too fond of broccoli.

That's just a small sampling of the menu of culinary peculiarities that State Department protocol officers face every time a head of state or any other important dignitary visits Washington.

Although dinner planning may seem mundane in comparison to the grander affairs of state, it poses problems that can be just as intricate as so-called substantive issues.

Indeed, many of the food restrictions that foreign heads of state impose can make Bush's aversion to broccoli seem like small potatoes.

Together with other special requests, the job of catering to foreign leaders' whims isn't easy. "It's complicated and it requires tremendous patience," Joseph V. Reed Jr., U.S. chief of protocol, asserts. "It requires commitment and attention to detail."

To avoid a culinary faux pas, U.S. officials and officials from the visitor's country go over in detail each step of a state visit--from the list of greeters at Andrews Air Force Base to the dessert at a state dinner.

Still, miscues occur.

Take, for instance, the time visitors from an Asian country took objection for some unforeseen reason to the veal they were served at a White House dinner. A former assistant to Nancy Reagan "swore she saw them putting the veal down their socks to get rid of it," a one-time colleague recalls.

Then there was Menachem Begin's visit to New York, during the days when he was prime minister of Israel. While aides tried to hurry Begin out of his hotel suite to make his next appointment, his wife--insisting that he should eat something--began slicing a tomato for him.

As staffers implored Begin to rush to his car, his wife plied him with pieces of tomato, saying: "Now wait a minute. Wait! You're going to eat, Menachem!"

When another Israeli leader was the guest at a White House luncheon, U.S. officials hired a kosher restaurant in Baltimore to cater the affair. The planning was methodical: As the food was carried upstairs in a dumbwaiter, a rabbi said the requisite prayers over each dish.

Eventually, however, the rabbi fell out of sync with the dumbwaiter, raising the prospect of awkward delays in serving if the waiters did not get their plates in time.

Down in the kitchen, the usually unflappable White House social secretary lost her cool. As the rabbi called out the appropriate blessings in Hebrew, she chanted: "Hurry it up, hurry it up, hurry it up."

Occasionally, visitors' advance teams bring lists of special requirements with them.

"Water," says Reed, "is the fastest thing that can hit you."

The drinking water in London, not to mention Luanda, is not precisely the same as the drinking water in Washington. Even perfectly clean water can upset a tummy if a traveler isn't accustomed to it.

So some visitors bring their own water--or else request a particular brand of bottled water. Queen Elizabeth, for example, drinks only Malvern water.

And, occasionally, a delegation will bring its own food.

One day last year, just before a state visit, a particularly foul odor seeped out from the private quarters of Blair House, the official government guest house that is located diagonally across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

It was fish--rotting fish. And fruit, too--overripe fruit, no less. The stench was attracting insects to the recently redecorated mansion.

As Reed recalls it, the special meal had been smuggled into the United States stashed away in the luggage of a visiting dignitary. But the valet forgot to account for the effect that an 18-hour airplane ride might have--particularly without refrigeration.

Eventually, the offensive fish and fruit were disposed of and a diplomatic incident was averted. "I think this was the work of a well-intentioned valet who thought this would please his master," Reed said.

"Following the visit, we did have Blair House fumigated," he noted.

The same care is taken by foreign governments when the President travels overseas. Advance teams made up of dozens of government employees--medical personnel, security agents, stewards and others--set up what amounts to a miniature White House wherever he will land and make sure that the agenda planned by the host government fits nicely with the policy goals of the White House.

Thus, aides to Jimmy Carter, who was pushing human rights issues on an African tour, took some pains in 1978 to persuade Nigerian officials--how to say this diplomatically?--that the President would greatly appreciate it if they could postpone until after his departure their weekly firing-squad executions of common thieves on the Lagos beach near his residence.

Oh, one more thing from the White House protocol manual: Don't use white flowers as a centerpiece at the dinner table when you invite Chinese officials. As everyone knows, in China they are too funereal.

Now, about those oysters. . . .

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