From catering to dictators to indulging Barack Obama’s love for cheese: a collection of French state dinner menus offers a unique glimpse into 150 years of diplomatic and gastronomic history. Over 4,000 menus were displayed in Paris before being auctioned off, with the oldest dating back to an imperial dinner hosted by Napoleon III in 1868, complete with wine stains from the era. This collection showcases the diverse range of guests at French state dinners, from royalty and statesmen like John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela to dictators like Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin, culminating in the recent grand feast at Versailles for King Charles III.

The menus, meticulously collected by Lyon chef Christophe Marguin, were auctioned by Millon, fetching prices from 10 to 1,500 euros per lot. Some menus are printed on silk, and one, created for U.S. President Jimmy Carter, features an original lithograph by painter Marc Chagall.

Examining these menus reveals the complex logistics of diplomatic events, such as the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings in 2014, when then-President Francois Hollande had to rush from a dinner with Obama to one with Putin. On another occasion, after enjoying a blue lobster salad and grilled sea bass, Obama requested a cheese platter that wasn’t on the tightly scheduled menu, “almost causing a diplomatic incident.”

These logistical challenges pale in comparison to the meal for 23,000 local mayors held in the Tuileries Gardens in 1900. This event required seven kilometers of tablecloths, 125,000 plates, 600 cooks, 2,200 servers, 2,000 kilos of salmon, 1,200 kilos of mayonnaise, and 39,000 bottles of wine. The menus also reflect the evolution of international relations. Visits in the late 19th century were much rarer and thus exceptional events, featuring multiple meals at the Élysée Palace, sometimes at Versailles, often accompanied by military parades and opera or theater programs.

Some menus carried subtle messages. When France sought to strengthen ties with both Russia and Britain in 1897, the dinner for Russian Tsar Nicholas II included Volga sturgeon and “Ananas à la Victoria” – a pineapple dessert named after the British Queen. During one visit, Queen Elizabeth II was offered two choices – with or without foie gras – to avoid offending her environmentally-conscious son, Charles. However, it was the Queen who decided, and clearly, she liked foie gras, so it remained on the menu.

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