White House’s Continent Dinner: Wagyu Beef, Coconut Milk Await 50 Motorcades

A slice of Wagyu beef in Tokyo.

Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

A slice of Wagyu beef in Tokyo.

Updated at 1:45 pm EDT

It may be a “Code Orange” day in Washington, D.C., the ambient air officially unfit for infants and the elderly, yet that won’t stop the White House from holding a dinner for 400 on the South Lawn of the White House.

Think of it as a Continent Dinner.

With vanilla all the way from Madagascar.

With 40 African heads of state in town for the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, which President Barack Obama plans to address this afternoon at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel across town, the White House is whipping up a ``traditional American meal with an African twist in a gigantic tent on the South Lawn.”

Lionel Richie will provide the entertainment.

The White House dinner invitation notes: “The Tuskegee, Alabama native, has sold over 100 million albums worldwide, and is the recipient of an Oscar award, a Golden Globe award, and five GRAMMY awards. Lionel is one of only two songwriters to have No. 1 records for nine consecutive years.”

It’ll be quite a production just moving all those heads of state and chief executives from the likes of General Electric and IBM attending a summit focused on the emerging business opportunities in Africa from the Mandarin several blocks to the White House.

About 50 crosstown motorcades are promised — in a city whose drivers shudder when sirens start sounding for armored processions of black SUVs that ferry dignitaries from one spot to another in a traffic-jamming frenzy of “here they go again.”

With so many dinner guests, the White House was asked today, will every African head of state get a chance to speak directly with Obama? The press secretary, Josh Earnest, noted that there will be “a receiving line.”

The sunny yet unbreatheable day — 88, and “feels like 90,” at its 4 pm EDT peak today — is expected to settle down to 80, “feels like 83,” by dinnertime. (Dirty secret: Those downtown Washington, D.C., temperatures actually are measured across the river at Ronald Reagan National Airport.)

It is the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments — “one region moving forward” — following EPA standards, that provides the readout on air quality: Today, marginally code orange, “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” (Could be worse — blood red or purple, “very unhealthy.”)

Yet what a dinner is promised.

NPR’s Tamara Keith visited the cramped kitchen of the White House where cooks were busy chopping ingredients for this evening’s affair: “On the eve of the big dinner, the chefs were working elbow to elbow in the surprisingly small White House kitchen, chopping onions, all kinds of peppers, papaya, chives and green beans” — some of it from the White House’s own garden.

The menu:  Chilled roasted tomato soup with socca crisps, coriander oil and micro cilantro… Second course:  chopped farmstand salad with green beans, lima beans and soured cream dressing, cinnamon and cumin… Main course: Wagyu beef , roasted sweet potato puree and braised collard greens made with chiles and coconut milk, and chermoula and crispy plantains…  Dessert: Capuccino Fudge Cake with papaya, scented with vanilla from Madagascar.’

One might think there’d be a suitable South African accompaniment for each course. Yet the White House wine list tonight is running domestic: Black Coyote Sauvignon Blanc 2013, from the Napa Valley, Vision Cellars Pinot Noir “Las Alturas” 2010,  from the Russian River Valley, and with dessert a Thibaut-Jannison Brut “Monticello” bubbly chardonnay, non-vintage, from Virginia.

Vision Cellars, however, is run by one of the few African-American winemakers in California, Edward Lee McDonald.

– with Roger Runningen and Margaret Talev, reporting from the White House

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