HOME > Chowhound > Food Media & News >


First formal Obama White House dinner -- salad after main?

Looking at this photo of the menu from the White House National Governors Association dinner, it looks like the salad course follows the main course, as is common in Europe. At the risk of sounding like a hick, is this arrangement of courses standard for formal dinners in the U.S.? (looks yummy, btw).


  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. In the Bush 41 White House, at all of the formal dinners (and he sure had a lot of them) the salad was always served after the main, before dessert.

    1. I think "in US" is a pretty broad term. Some restaurants serve the salad as a first course, some after the main.

      At Chez Julia, I always serve the salad after the main, and when I was catering, that was the way Feastivals' formal dinners were always served.

      1 Reply
      1. re: ChefJune

        I think this misrepresents the typical ordering in the US, which is salad first. It is a rarity that a menu features the salads as a "contorno," for instance, even among Italian restaurants going for authenticity..

      2. Yes, at Chez Roxlet, the salad is always after the main, except if it's some sort of special "composed" salad specifically designed to be a first course.

        1. How did you read that?

          I thought salad after the main is a European thing... But I don't know. I think it's a great way to cleanse your palate.

          8 Replies
          1. re: Apple

            I read for a living (I've been a proofreader/editor for over 20 years)! I agree it's not easy to read, but the first item is crab agnolottis with roasted sunchokes, the second is wagyu beef and scallops with red carrots, portobello mushrooms and creamed spinach (according to a video clip I saw, the White House chef makes creamed spinach without cream by pureeing some of the spinach and whipping it, then folding it into the rest of the spinach), and for the third, the words "salad and pistachios" are quite clear. It looks like the word preceding that might be citrus, and then according to the next line it has some kind of honey vinaigrette. For the dessert all that can be read is "cobbler" but according to the blog this was posted on, it was huckleberry.

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              Ah, here's the complete menu:

              Chesapeake Crab Agnolottis with Roasted Sunchokes
              Wine pairing: Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (California)
              Wagyu Beef and Nantucket Scallops
              Glazed Red Carrots, Portobello Mushroom and Creamed Spinach
              Wine pairing: Archery Summit Pinot Noir "Estate" 2004 (Oregon)
              Winter Citrus Salad with Pistachios and Lemon Honey Vinaigrette
              Huckleberry Cobbler with Caramel Ice Cream
              Wine pairing: Black Star Farms "A Capella" Riesling Ice Wine 2007 (Michigan)

            2. re: Apple

              So explain to me the sense of the order here. Why is salad after the main course such a big deal, outside of the fact that most restaurants serve it the other way around.

              1. re: Phaedrus

                It's not. I was just curious about the structure of formal dinners -- since I never go to them!

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  Well, that is what I was asking. Why the distinction?

                  For example, in western cuisine, a soup would be served at the beginning whereas in China, the soup could be served anywhere. I went to a banquet in Fuzhou and they served three or four different soups and the soup is usually served at the end. I never understood that sequence and I was asking to find out about the order of serving the salads.

                2. re: Phaedrus

                  I believe the practice of serving a salad before the main started in restaurants catering to the new tourists traveling by train. They had a limited amount of time for feed everyone and so had a prepared salad ready will the rest of the meal was completed.

                  Please don't ask for citations! This factoid (real or not) is lodged in the vast beyond of my grey matter.

                3. re: Apple

                  I thought it was about cleansing the body, not the palate. Hmmm.

                4. Whatever it is, sign me up!

                  I like salad first, and I like it after the main. When it's served with a nice broiled goat cheese, I like it served four times right in a row, thanks.

                  1. yes, that is the order of courses for the formal dinner. here is a very enlightening (ahem.. or...er...harrumph?) , entertaining and droll piece by emily post: http://www.bartleby.com/95/14.html

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: alkapal

                      That. Is. Hysterical.

                      Not very applicable to California in the 21st century (my idea of a formal dinner is one where everybody wears shoes), but hysterical nevertheless.

                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        alan, i know. it is funny, isn't it?
                        so... don't be goin' havin' airs to be mr. or mrs. worldly.

                    2. I'm reading the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook right now, and Alice Waters states that she likes to serve a salad after the main. She will sometimes have one before the main, but will still keep one after the main as well.

                      1. "the salad course follows the main course, as is common in Europe"

                        A fairly broad brush comment there - there are many European countries where we do not serve a salad course at all. I'm trying to think of one where it is common ( certainly not the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain). Where did you have in mind?

                        11 Replies
                          1. re: Harters

                            In Italy, salad falls in the "contorno" category, or those plates served after the second course (meat). The logic is that it is a palate cleanser.

                            1. re: fame da lupo

                              Thank you, that was what I was looking for. I was wondering if it had that intended purpose.

                              1. re: Phaedrus

                                I found this article on the history of salad to be interesting:


                                "The medical practitioners Hippocrates and Galen belived that raw vegetables easily slipped through the system and did not create obstructions for what followed, therefore they should be served first. Others reported that the vinegar in the dressing destroyed the taste of the wine, therefore they should be served last. This debate has continued ever since...With the fall of Rome, salads were less important in western Europe, although raw vegetables and fruit were eaten on fast days and as medicinal correctives...The term salade derived from the Vulgar Roman herba salata, literally 'salted herb'. It remained a feature of Byzantine cookery and reentered the European menu via medieval Spain and Renaissance Italy. At first "salad" referred to various kinds of greens pickled in vinegar or salt. The word salade later referred to fresh-cooked greens of raw vegetables prepared in the Roman manner."

                              2. re: fame da lupo

                                According to my high school girlfriend's Italian mother, the salad is served after the main course because it is "the broom of the stomach." Cleanser, yes. Palate, no.

                              3. re: Harters

                                Thanks for the mentions of Italy.

                                I'd wondered about there. I've only visited the country four times and then usually only in the north - where serving a salad course is not usual (except, of course, as a starter), nor will you usually find salad amongst the contorni. Cuisine is very regional there, so perhaps its more common in the south of the country.

                                1. re: Harters

                                  Harters, what makes you think a salad course is uncommon in France? not in a bistro meal, but yes, salad is common, and unless it is the main course, it is likely to follow the main.

                                  1. re: ChefJune


                                    I've visited Northern France regularly for a good many years and have never seen salad served as a separate course. Even on "gourmet menus" (say 50 Euros and up), there's a pretty standard four course arrangement - starter/main/cheese/dessert

                                    Comment was based on that.

                                    1. re: Harters

                                      In France, where I lived and studied cooking for many years, Salad is always served after the Plat Principal. In cafes and bistros Salad composee is a classic entree as the First Course is called in French.

                                      A formal dinner, or dinner in a restaurant Gastronomique, Salad is served after the Plat principal, often with a Cheese tray. Often instead of dessert. There is often a choice of Salan and Cheese or dessert.'

                                      At formal dinners like State banquets and official dinners, there are often 6 or 8 course menus, with a palate cleanser like a sorbet between courses, salad and cheese accompanied by specialty breads, followed by dessert, followed by un petit cafe and Petits Fours.

                                      1. re: Fleur

                                        As you say, mixed salad is regularly served as a starter, although I usually prefer crudites. I've never been to a State dinner in France (or anywhere else for that matter) so couldnt comment on the running order of dishes but I'm sure you'll be right.

                                        Here's a link to the "Toques d'Opale", the principal gastro. restaurateurs association around Calais. I'm familiar with several but not all of the restaurants and as I said upthread my comments are based on regular eating there and more generally in the Pas de Calais and Somme regions.:

                                        And, by way of further example, here's the 75 Euro menu from the Michelin starred La Matelote, just down the coast at Boulogne:

                                        MENU DEGUSTATION
                                        Les mises en bouche du jour

                                        L'aspic de foie gras, de homard, de turbot crumble de foie gras

                                        La feuillantine de langoustines, foutee de creme au parmesan viege, crustace

                                        Les noix de St-Jacques poelees, raviles de topinambour beurre de truffe

                                        Le petit burger de boeuf a la truffe pomme pont neuf

                                        Le choix du plateau de fromages

                                        Le cocktail "pommes, poires" tartelette, sorbet, sable, caramelisee

                                        Les mignardises, les chocolats.

                                        Tasty - but with the current exchange rate, I'll have to think twice whether I eat that menu or a cheaper one when I'm over in May. Very expensive in comparison with even 2 star British places. Incidentally, the restaurant offers a salad starter on the carte (asparagus, poached egg, lentils).

                                2. I'm sorry what ever protocol is. What does it matter?

                                  12 Replies
                                  1. re: kchurchill5

                                    I was curious. Do you have a problem with that? It's a food-related question, which is relevant to this board. If you're not interested, feel free to skip the thread.

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      No, I am interested, I merly think that salad before or served after is not bad or good. It should be up to the individual. Just because protocol says one is right and one isn't I don't think that is important. However it is served should just be enjoyed by those eating it. It doesn't bother me who does what or when, I just hope that it is enjoyed and the sequence isn't important. Thats all. My answer was food related.

                                      I think that is someone wants desert first why not. I don't agree but its not my dinner. Each is own. As long as they enjoy the food that should to me .. be all that matters. Each person is different and we need to respect that.

                                      1. re: kchurchill5

                                        Look above, I was wondering if there was a good reason for this. Something having to do with the way the courses need to be enjoyed.

                                        1. re: Phaedrus

                                          Lost sorry, don't know what you mean, sorry. I thought I stated my thoughts

                                          1. re: Phaedrus

                                            Salad are good palette cleansers. In a 3-course meal, after the main entre seems like a good place to put it. In that particular meal I can see why. Beef, portobellos and creamed spinach and then a cobbler w/ ice cream could get a little heavy. The salad provides a nice break between the two.

                                          2. re: kchurchill5

                                            So you think formal state events at the White House should pay no mind to protocol and etiquette? Because that's what I intended this thread to be about, not at what point during dinner Chez Lafler I should serve my saladl.

                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                              No I think protocol is a nice courtesy, but I also think if they are visiting you and you want salad before dinner or the main course, I think you have the right to do that. There isn't one set protocol in all countries that says salad first dinner second, desert third. Respect the other beliefs but also show that you'res are just as important. Having a salad before using US normal protocols. Not to say but it is what is commonly done. and maybe doing something of theirs that is common to them. Offering a mix. I don't think protocol has to be followed all the time, State dinner or not. I catered for the governor once. With friends. We broke every rule because he wanted to. I think that is acceptable.

                                              1. re: kchurchill5

                                                It's not a question of "US protocol" (by which I think you mean mores or tradition), but of formal banquet protocol. Not formal meaning fancy, but in the traditional sense of formal dinner service.

                                                1. re: kchurchill5

                                                  Bingo, kchurchill5. Its also worth noting that the Obamas are quite sophisticated, and can deal easily with deviation from tradition, as long as it makes sense and TASTES GOOD.

                                                  I likee my salad after my main. I don't mind it before either, naturally. But as much as I adore Emily, her advice is a bit, um, elderly at this point. Those of us who don't have the luxury of help can still put together an edible meal occasionally, ya know...

                                                  1. re: dmd_kc

                                                    Thx, compromise .. . isn't that part of diplomacy. Follow some but show them who we are too. Nothing wrong with that and AI highly doubt they would have a problem

                                                    1. re: dmd_kc

                                                      whether emily post's advice is old, it is still pertinent to the order of courses in a formal dinner. you'd find the same in contemporary etiquette guides.

                                                      1. re: alkapal

                                                        Exactly. "Those of us who don't have the luxury of help can still put together an edible meal occasionally, ya know..." doesn't apply here. This isn't a home dinner party.

                                          3. I grew up in a house with salad after the main, and prefer it that way.

                                            1. Salad after the main is extremely rare in the U.S., and might almost be considered pretentious. Don't know of any high-end restaurants that suggest this, and if the White House is doing it, it seems like they're suffering from a feeling of inferiority vis-a-vis the Europeans.

                                              5 Replies
                                              1. re: pikawicca

                                                but pikawicca, that is the order for *formal* dinners, and has been for eons, so to speak. i commend the emily post link i posted above; it is enlightening and (nowadays) funny.

                                                1. re: pikawicca

                                                  Guess it depends upon where in the US you are if it's considered "rare". Since the early 20th century, Italian immigrants (and many of their ancestors) have been eating their salad after their main course...and I'd scarcely call them pretentious. It's simply a matter of cultural norms. As far as the administration suffering from a feeling of inferiority to Europeans, I'd be more likely to think that was the case if they made a concerted effort to make sure they conducted every minute detail "the American way"...and served "Freedom Fries" LOL. I've never felt that an appreciation of foreign cultures and foods and love of one's own country were mutually exclusive.

                                                  1. re: pikawicca

                                                    Pretentious? Rare? I have never eaten a salad as a starter in my home. Never, ever. I don't know of a single traditional Italian family that would serve a salad first. And I'm 4th generation American. The salad was ALWAYS last and just before dessert -- if there was any.

                                                    1. re: roxlet

                                                      I always serve it after the main course when I have dinner parties, and sometimes do it for dinners just for the two of us. Sometimes I just have the salad bowl at the table, but we usually still eat the salad after the meal. That said, I grew up in Europe, and my husband is from Latin America.

                                                      1. re: roxlet

                                                        I concur with roxlet.... as a child growing up in a throughly Italian family on both sides, and as an adult: salad always after the main and before dessert.

                                                        In restaurants if I want a salad I simply ask for it to be served after the entree. That's never been a problem.

                                                    2. My French in-laws always have salad after the main course. I grew up having it with the main course on a separate salad plate -- but we're hopelessly American middle class.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. I've probably watched or attended 40+ "state" or official dinners, here and abroad, tho' most of them at the White House. At least during the Bush 41 admin., the salad (usually with cheese) was served after the main and before dessert. Liquers and coffee then followed in the Blue Room. Worked pretty well and tasted great. Most of these official dinners were served to at least 120 people, so giving all the guests a choice of when they were to be served the salad-- before the main or before the meal-- just wasn't feasible. Though I am certain if someone asked for this specifically, they would of course be accomodated.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: annabana

                                                          annabana - you note another excellent point. This is a protocol issue. Has next to nothing to do with the current occupant of the White House and how "sophisticated" he or she may or may not be. The White House staff has been at the formal dinner thing for a long, long time, and will continue to operate in much the same way for another long, long time. I am quite sure the current occupant is given some say in what foods are served, but the White House chef is the one who is acquiring the foodstuffs and has her suppliers and knows what's available at any given time. So again, it has to do with a knowledgeable, experienced staff and simply, "the way things are done."

                                                        2. POTUS and spouse have enormous latitude over the food served at official functions--if they choose. For example, Mrs. Reagan apparently had pre-event tastings of entire state dinner menus, while Barbara Bush simply approved the menus. It varies, I think with each admin. That's the great thing about living in the WH, tradition is everywhere, but the occupants really make the "house" rules.

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: annabana

                                                            The State Department Office of Protocol is also involved in the menu design for State Dinners. They are part of the team that works with the advance groups sent over before Heads of State visit.
                                                            Menus must account for religious, cultural, and dietary restrictions, as well as simple likes and dislikes of the visiting Heads of State and the advance teams make the Protocol Office aware of those limitations.
                                                            The menus are then constructed to take advantage of American foods within that framework.
                                                            POTUS and FLOTUS have great latitude but their ultimate goal is to further US foreign relations.

                                                            1. re: MakingSense

                                                              "POTUS and FLOTUS"

                                                              You're going to have to explain that to this foreigner (please). I presume it makes sense to Americans.

                                                              1. re: Harters

                                                                President of the United States and First Lady of the United States. Terminology of White House staff, Secret Service, etc., that first became popular knowledge outside the Beltway (highway around D.C.; "inside the Beltway"=inside Federal political circles) during the Clinton presidency.