As a child I spent many summers with my grandparents in London. I loved the wide sidewalks that were designed for endless games of hopscotch. I loved the crisp showers replacing the humidity. I loved riding atop the red double decker busses. But it was Buckingham Palace that really captured my imagination.
As I peered through the palace gates separating my six year old self from the fairy-tale palace that was actually real, I wondered what lay beyond those doors so awesomely guarded by those live toy soldiers. I wondered what it would be like to actually dine with the Queen. Should I discover the solution to world hunger and earn an invitation to a Royal Banquet, would I even be able to eat there? I wondered whether I would have to pack my own sandwiches for my Royal dinner. I would probably choose peanut butter, or maybe tuna with cucumbers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, pulling a peanut butter sandwich from a paper bag at a Royal Banquet wouldn’t sit well with Her Majesty. While, for most of us, attending a Royal Banquet is merely fun to fantasize about, there are Orthodox Jews that do receive invitations. With an estimated 300,000 Jews living in Britain, the Jewish presence is represented in Parliament too. Among the 775 members of the House of Lords, Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks and Lord Levy are Jewish, Orthodox, and kosher consumers. And unlike my six year old self, they have had the honor of dining with Her Majesty. In addition to Lord Levy and Lord Sacks, other Orthodox Jews too have attended Royal banquets. The responsibilities of the Queen include strengthening Britain’s relationship with other countries. Accordingly, when a Head of State from overseas arrives in the UK on a formal visit, the Queen hosts a State Banquet in their honor. Around four times a year a kosher consumer is on the guest list, usually when the banquet is honoring an Israeli or American dignitary.
At events hosted by Her Majesty, the "term fit for a queen" is more than a cliché. It is a standard upheld with British perfection and pride. Despite having a household staff of 1,200, the Queen herself is actively involved in the banquet preparation. She chooses the menu and decides on the seating plan. The banquet tables are set with the same precision that one would expect after seeing the Changing of the Guards. Napkins are measured so that they are spaced precisely 17 inches apart. The crockery, cutlery, and six glasses are all laid with perfect symmetry, aided by the trusted tape measure. Prior to the commencement of the banquet, the Queen always comes around to personally inspect the tables. With Royal protocol being so particular, how are the dietary requirements of the kosher guests met? A slab of gefilte fish on a plastic plate could hardly be served alongside glazed salmon on silver gilt.
Rabbi Hillel Simon, Rabbinic Coordinator of Catering at the London Beth Din, supervises the kashrus at the Royal Banquets. The kosher menu, crockery, and serving dishes are all matched as closely as possible to those of the rest of the guests. While the Beth Din usually brings in its own equipment to avoid the need to kashrus as much as possible, the Palace is a rare exception. On the morning of the banquet an area of the palace kitchen is allocated for the Beth Din and the work begins. The oven is kashered, surfaces covered, menus mimicked. The palace is highly accommodating to the extent that there are times when they even purchase new sets of crockery to ensure that the kashrus standards are maintained and the visual appeal of the banquet table is not compromised. Chances are the Palace crockery wasn’t pulled from the clearance shelf at Costco. The Beth Din in turn often kashrus cutlery, silver platters, tongs, and utensils to maintain the uniformity. Wine glasses do not usually require kashering, yet they do when adorned with a gold rim as many are in the Palace.
While much thought is given to the seating plan, kosher observance is not the primary concern. In the banquet hall the few kosher guests are seated alongside the rest of the guests. Waiters are carefully briefed as to what each guest is served, but when the plate with crayfish and the plate of kosher fish are identical, how can the Beth Din guarantee that they are not accidentally switched?
Rabbi Simon laughs. "They don’t look the exact same," he admits. "The crockery is the same, the food looks the same. But in order to easily identify the kosher plates, we fill them with a portion several times larger than the others." So when you are invited to the Palace for a banquet and your plate has three cups of Pommes Boulangère while your neighbor’s plate has a mere three tablespoons, you can rest assured that your food is kosher.
Did You Know?
Did you know that the Queen and the royal palace also have a place in kashrus? Many times, when there is a she’ilah of bishul yisroel, there is a rav who calls an official at the palace and asks if the particular food is ever served formally to the Queen!
It’s not just the menu that has to match, it’s the wine too. Rabbi Simon recalls a situation where the palace wanted to match the quality and style of a certain wine for their kosher guests. The caterers had tried to find a suitable match but to no avail. "When the Palace called to say that they had the perfect wine, we thought ‘Oy vey, there’s no way that they have a suitable, mevushal wine…’ but it turned out that they did. At an earlier occasion the Israeli Ambassador had presented the Queen with an award-winning, mevushal wine… sure enough, they brought it out for the occasion."
The banquet itself is the most magnificent display of Royalty. The banquet, a black tie event, opens with the orchestra playing the British National anthem as the guests stand at attention. After the anthem, there are the champagne toasts to Her Majesty. The banquet menu is more than a feast for the palette; it is a feast for the eyes too. The first course, usually fish, is served on silver gilt plates accompanied by white wine. The meat course too is served on silver gilt, this time accompanied by red wine. Dessert is fruit served on a porcelain service, followed by pudding on another porcelain service. And of course, the kosher servings are the ones that look like they belong to Papa Bear.
Chances are that I will not be the one to solve the problem of world hunger and my attendance will not be requested at a Royal Banquet. However I noticed many parallels between our own weekly dinner with the Shabbos Queen and the Royal Banquets hosted by Queen Elizabeth II. Traditionally, the Shabbos table is laid with our finest silver and china. We dress for dinner in special clothing honoring the Shabbos, although it is usually not a custom designed Tom Ford gown. The Royal Banquet commences with a champagne toast to the Queen of Britain, we rise and begin our Shabbos dinners with Kiddush – a toast to the Shabbos Queen. Following the toast, the meal is served. Both the Shabbos dinner and the State Banquets traditionally serve a fish appetizer followed by a meat course.
Dining with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is one of the greatest honors and experiences. As fantastic as it may be, it is actually one that we can experience weekly with the Shabbos Queen. Although I guess if you really want to increase the authenticity of the Royal experience you can measure the distance between the napkins – just make sure you do it before Shabbos!