1968 was not the most peaceful and gentle of times: the nation was at war overseas, there were violent protests at home, and a major civil rights leader and a Presidential candidate were both assassinated. But the world was not under quarantine, there were no violent insurrections at the Capitol, and the after the Presidential election that November, there was a peaceful transfer of power and a normal inauguration on the Capitol steps the following January, including balls and state dinners.
Today is Inauguration Day for Joe Biden, and there will be none of those things. There won’t even be a large crowd to see it in person because the Capitol Mall has been blocked off after the riot two weeks ago. (And now I feel sorry for Biden, because he seems like the sort of person who would have enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance of the traditional inaugural celebrations, especially after all the stress and tumult of the election and its aftermath.)
So let’s go back in time to the White House of those simple days of 1968. Or specifically, one simple day when Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and his wife Hiroko came to visit LBJ and Lady Bird and the Johnsons hosted a state dinner for 190 people. As an extra bonus, our guide will be the one and only Julia Child.
In an episode of the documentary series NET Festival that originally aired in April on WGBH, the Boston educational television station that also produced The French Chef, Child goes behind the scenes at the White House to talk with with all the major players: the Japanese ambassador, the chief housekeeper, the White House Chief of Protocol, and the First Lady’s press secretary. Astonishingly, the White House staff couldn’t begin setting up the dining room until after noon the day of the dinner, when the last tour had gone through.
As you might have guessed, Child shows the greatest enthusiasm during her conversation with Chef Henry Haller about the evening’s menu: seafood vol-au-vents, noisettes of lamb, and strawberry mousse. Haller, who served as the White House chef from 1966 to 1987 and died this past November, was born in Switzerland and trained, like Child, in the French tradition; it’s fun to watch them nerd out together over pastry shells and cuts of lamb (with perfect French pronunciation). Her attempts to restrain her impulse to taste everything—and her ultimate failure—is also delightful.
The full 45-minute video of White House Red Carpet With Julia Child is available for streaming at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, a collaboration between GBH Boston and the Library of Congress.
It’s a soothing watch, especially In These Times. And a bonus: a brief shot of Paul Child, who, in voluntarily assuming the role of kitchen organizer and official dishwasher for The French Chef, earned his rightful place in the Famous Women’s Husbands Hall of Fame.