When JFK Hosted Dr S Radhakrishnan At A State Dinner
Image Credit: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

IN the throes of a rain storm, Washington awaits the arrival of the President of India. (It’s) a good omen — the rain comes as a relief after 38 days of drought.

So begins a documentary on Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s state visit to America in June of 1963. The Indian President received a warm welcome: crowds lined the streets, clad in raincoats and carrying umbrellas, and American President John F Kennedy rushed to greet him as soon as he alighted from the chopper that had ferried him to the White House grounds.

The agenda for the state visit was manifold: Apart from Washington DC, Dr Radhakrishnan had scheduled pit stops at the NASA site in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Los Angeles, California; Colorado; and New York City and the UN headquarters. But it was undoubtedly his White House meetings with President Kennedy that took centrestage. 

The two leaders had weighty things to discuss: Pakistan, US aid, China, and nuclear weapons. But they made time for the evening’s entertainment — a state dinner put together by Jacqueline Kennedy’s personally appointed White House executive chef, René Verdon, a master of French cuisine. The Washington National Opera would perform Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the conclusion of dinner. 

The Kennedys had changed White House dining by leaps and bounds, as we’ve explored in a previous Slurrp article. Elegant three-course dinners had replaced the more sprawling yet perfunctorily prepared spreads served under previous Presidents. The Kennedy administration was the first to serve American wines at state dinners. 

For Dr Radhakrishnan’s visit, the menu was very much a reflection of the Kennedy ethos. A salmon aspic with Sauce Vincent (green mayonnaise) marked the first course, followed by a roast spring lamb, rice à l’Orientale, creamed spinach, a green salad and a portion of brie. Fine wines accompanied each of these dishes, and the meal was capped with a bombe glacée aux peaches (an ice cream-style dessert) and petit fours sec (dainty biscuits, baked meringues, macarons and puff pastries).

As a leader who elevated state dinners at the Rashtrapati Bhavan during his stint as President, Dr Radhakrishnan is sure to have appreciated the arrangements for the evening. After all, his banquet for Cyprus’ vice president Fazil Küçük earlier that same year had the first recorded mention of tandoori delicacies being served at the presidential residence.