Nixon in China: The Dinner Recreated

    In the backdrop of the Metropolitan Opera House’s premier of “Nixon in China,” a Manhattan Chinese restaurant is recreating the actual menu from the opening day banquet. The New York Times reports:

    WHEN President Richard M. Nixon made his momentous trip to China in 1972, it followed years of diplomacy and advance work. When Michael Tong brought his interpretation of the visit to his Manhattan restaurant, Shun Lee Palace, it took less than 24 hours.

    One night early in the trip, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai gave a formal dinner in Nixon’s honor. The meal, served in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, was broadcast live around the world and covered by a sizable press corps. Because of the time difference, it was still morning in Manhattan when Mr. Tong received a copy of the menu by Telex. He was sure he could duplicate the meal in his restaurant that same night, so he called Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel, local newscasters at ABC, to ask whether they wanted to film it. And they did.

    Mr. Tong served the menu for months afterward at the restaurant, on East 55th Street. for $25 a person. “It was huge news then,” he said. “The Chinese restaurant scene here exploded because of the Nixon trip.” By the summer, at least one other Manhattan restaurant was serving a version of the Nixon dinner menu, at $10 a person, and an article in The New York Times bore the headline, “Chinese Restaurants Flower Following Diplomatic Thaw.”

    Nearly 40 years later, Mr. Tong will serve the menu again to about 60 invited guests on Jan. 31, after the Metropolitan Opera’s dress rehearsal for its staging of John Adams’s “Nixon in China.” The Zhou dinner figures prominently in the 1987 opera, by John Adams, which makes its Met debut next week.

    Despite the avid global attention to the meal, the menu was “not that exciting,” Mr. Tong said. “In those days the Chinese did not know what Americans liked so they served familiar things like roast pork and Chinese sausages, which are not usual banquet dishes,” he said. “There were two shrimp dishes even though shrimp are not typical of Beijing cuisine, because they heard that Americans like shrimp.” Also on the menu were cucumber slices, tomato slices, sliced roast duck with pineapple, and bread and butter. The beverages included “boiled water (cold).”

    But there were also dishes like shark’s fin soup, black mushrooms with mustard greens, spongy bamboo shoots in egg-white consommé, and fish fillets in pickle wine sauce.

    Photographs from the trip show that Nixon was adept at using chopsticks but seemed puzzled by some of the food, like the fried gizzards at an all-duck dinner given by Mr. Zhou.

    In the Met’s production, directed by Peter Sellars, there is no food on stage. But the guests, including Nixon, his wife and Henry A. Kissinger, stand and toast with tiny glasses of red stuff, supposedly Chinese maotai.

    That spirit, distilled from sorghum, can be unforgiving to those who are not used to drinking it. Max Frankel, who covered the trip for The Times, described it in an e-mail as “pure gasoline.” According to the historian Margaret MacMillan, an aide to Dr. Kissinger had tasted maotai on an advance trip and, gravely concerned about its effect on Nixon, cabled back a warning: “Under no repeat no circumstances should the president actually drink from his glass in response to banquet toasts.”

    But drink Nixon did, and while he visibly winced, he matched Zhou Enlai glass for glass.

    The menu – dated February 21, 1972 – for the banquet Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai held in President Richard Nixon’s honor.


    Top photo courtesy of the The New York Times: A rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera House during the dinner scene of “Nixon in China.”


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