When President Richard 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 New York 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 was covered by a sizable press corps. Because of the time difference, it was morning in New York when Tong received a copy of the menu by Telex. He was sure he could duplicate the meal in his restaurant that night, so he called Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel, local newscasters at ABC, to ask whether they wanted to film it. They did.
Tong served the menu for months afterward at the restaurant, for $25.
"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 New York restaurant was serving a version of the Nixon dinner menu, for $10, and an article in The New York Times bore the headline, "Chinese Restaurants Flower Following Diplomatic Thaw."
Nearly 40 years later, Tong will serve the menu again to about 60 invited guests Monday, after the Metropolitan Opera's dress rehearsal for its staging of John Adams' Nixon in China. The Zhou dinner figures prominently in the 1987 opera, which makes its Met debut next week.
Despite the avid global attention to the meal, the menu was "not that exciting," 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."
But there also were shark-fin soup, black mushrooms with mustard greens, spongy bamboo shoots in egg-white consommé, and fish fillet in pickle wine sauce.
In the Met's production, there is no food on stage. But the guests stand and toast with tiny glasses of red stuff, supposedly Chinese maotai.
Max Frankel, who covered the trip for The Times, described it in an e-mail as "pure gasoline."
But Nixon drank it, and while he visibly winced, he matched Zhou glass for glass.