WASHINGTON (Jan 20) — An elaborate state dinner for visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao was derailed last night when the White House kitchen staff failed to show up to work because of a federal holiday.
“It was Inauguration Day Eve, and our contract specifically stipulates that we have that day off,” said chef Cristeta Comerford. “It doesn’t matter that there’s no inauguration in 2011. We still have a paid holiday.”
President Obama and his staff tried to roll with the punches, hastily relocating the elaborate dinner to a nearby storefront Chinese restaurant.
“It’s just like we’d do on Christmas, when all restaurants except the Chinese ones are closed,” Obama told reporters later. “Ha-ha, huh, Hu?”
The White House staff declined early suggestions to “do takee-outee” then take the 225 invited guests out to a movie. Instead, a lengthy motorcade was assembled to transport the entire group to a suburban Washington strip mall where Chinese officials and American dignitaries dined on numbers 13, 45, 83 and, for vegetarians in the group, number 97 but hold the chicken.
“And your sign out front says ‘no MSG’, so we don’t have to specify that, right?” the president asked of Harry Lee, owner/manager of the Number One Chinese Kitchen, formerly known as the Royal Panda, formerly known as the China Town Express.
Squeezing the group into the small restaurant proved to be quite a challenge. With only 12 booths and 10 tables, many diners had to stand throughout the meal. A small group decided to brave the 25-degree temperatures and eat outside at three additional tables, though they later complained they kept getting dirty looks from shoppers at the nearby Kroger who had to maneuver their carts past the chilled patrons.
As the crowd enjoyed their Happy Family, Seafood Wa Ba and House Special Sizzling, Obama rose to offer a toast to the peoples of both countries.
“May they grow together in friendship. May they prosper together in peace,” the president said as he raised his glass of Diet Coke. “And may they realize their dream of the future for themselves, for their children and for their grandchildren.”
“Hey, would you mind holding it down over there,” said Aaron Johnson, an Arlington, Va., construction worker dining with his family before the exclusive crowd arrived. “You don’t hear us talking loudly, do ya?”
After the president apologized for the disruption, President Hu stood to offer similar greetings.
“Yin yang tofu ping pong chow ching,” said the smiling Hu. A translator claimed the toast wished for “steady growth of China-U.S. relations,” but a Mandarin-speaking American reporter covering the event claimed that Hu told his diplomats they should “feel free to check out the Jersey Mike’s next door if you were hoping for real American food.”
As the dinner drew to a close, owner Lee distributed fortune cookies to the diners. Several read theirs aloud, laughing at sayings like “A secret admirer will soon send you a sign of affection” and “We are born naked, wet, and hungry, and get slapped on our butt … then things get worse.” Both presidents were urged to read their fortunes to the group. Obama said his read “beware of the tall dark stranger … never mind, it’s our president” while President Hu’s read “may your currency float freely on international money markets.”
Once the initial snafu of having no dinner prepared for a state dinner had been resolved, there were few of the mishaps that characterized earlier events held for the leaders of India and Mexico. Tight security ensured there were no gate-crashers, as happened with the Salahi couple last year. It appeared at first that Snooki, star of MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore,” was trying to gain unauthorized admission, but it turned out that administration staffers thought her name was “Snoo-Ki” and that, as a prominent Chinese-American, she should be invited.
The only other gaffe involved the clothing choice of Vice President Joe Biden. While the president wore a classic tuxedo and Mrs. Obama sported a silk organza dress in the bright red symbolic of good luck in Chinese culture, Biden showed up at the White House wearing a sumo loincloth. He quickly changed to a business suit when told sumo wrestling was a Japanese custom, not a Chinese one.
The only major no-show was new Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who sources said declined the invitation because hot Chinese mustard makes him cry.