Food and politics go together like Nixon and Agnew. Okay, maybe that's a terrible analogy. How about "Food and politics go together like filet of sole and a Napa Chardonnay?" That's better! And it's true! From fish fries to barbeques, mixing good food and a stump speech has become a staple of American politics.
Traveling the country for most of this year, I found some great dining spots in some gorgeous corners of America. Some were fancy; some were plain. But it was a “foodie’s” road trip of a lifetime. Besides, ditching the “rubber chicken” lunches offered on the campaign bus is a real challenge.
Take the famed Lexington Barbeque in Lexington, North Carolina, where I caught up with former President Bill Clinton, known for his legendary appetite for both food and politics. Nothing fancy here, but a simple white building with a long lunch counter and some basic tables and booths. The food is the star.
Lexington is a small country town off of Interstate 85, between Charlotte and Raleigh. Mr. Clinton arrived for an 11:30 a.m. campaign stop, with over 200 townsfolk lined up to greet him. After campaigning for his wife Hillary, posing for pictures and signing autographs, the ex-president ducked inside for some of the legendary BBQ.
When he emerged ninety minutes later, I got to speak with him briefly. As he shook my hand, I inquired, "How was the barbecue Mr. President?"
"It was unbelievable." he said. "The barbecue was good. The hush puppies were good."
"Anything else?" I asked.
"If I had the ice cream, I'd need a nap," Clinton said. He walked a few steps farther and - still waving to the crowd - got into his Secret Service van and left.
At first I wondered, "What was I thinking? This is the most critical election in sixty years, and I ask the ex-president and husband of one of the candidates about food?" Then I thought, "Lighten up, Mark. Campaigns are supposed to be fun, too!"
Wayne Monk and his family have owned the Lexington Barbeque for over forty-five years. Since he was sporting an “I Voted” sticker on his shirt, I wondered aloud whether the Clinton visit had prompted Monk to vote for Hillary. But he has learned diplomacy, as well as how to cook, over the years. "I don't argue politics, religion or Carolina basketball!" Monk said, wisely evading my question.
Being a wise consumer, I bellied up to the lunch counter and said “Just give me the same thing President Clinton had.” Within moments a waiter delivered a plate of vinegar-highlighted pulled-pork BBQ , crisp French fries, hush puppies and the weirdest looking coleslaw I had every seen. “Oh, that’s barbeque slaw,” said Monk. “We make it with ketchup, instead of mayonnaise.” Despite its odd look, it was tangy and delicious! Monk’s BBQ is so famous he was hired by President Reagan in 1983 to cook for an economic summit at the White House.
(“IF YOU GO” – Lexington Barbeque, Highway 29-70 South, Lexington, NC, (704) 249-9814, no web site).
While the Lexington Barbeque was clean and simple, another campaign trip took me to Dallas and a real treat at Bob’s Steak and Chop House. Now this is a real Texas steakhouse! Dark woods and deep-colored booths, said this place was a classic. My 16-year-old daughter Allie, who is an aspiring TV journalist, did an internship with me at the Texas primary. While not a big beef eater, she fell in love with Bob’s. I suspect it was the lush filet mignon she ordered that did the trick.
It was a rainy and chilly night on the eve of the Texas primary, and Bob’s was the place to be. Even though we had no reservations, the staff welcomed us like family and found us a table. My medium rare ribeye was perfect, courted by tasty glazed carrots and garlic mashed potatoes. Washed down with a Remy Martin Cognac for dessert, this was foodie heaven.
(“IF YOU GO!” – Bob’s Steak and Chop House, 4300 Lemmon Ave., Dallas, TX, (214) 528-9446. www.bobs-steakandchop.com. Good news for Bay Area diners: “Bob’s Steak and Chop House” has a San Francisco location, too! 500 California Street, at Montgomery, (415) 273-3085).
No campaign trip would be complete without a stop where it all began - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As I sat in the bar of Fork Restaurant on Market Street, near the historic district, I wondered whether Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had dined at a different version of this “watering hole” more than 200 years ago. Fork is just blocks from the Liberty Bell, down the main street from City Hall, where a statue of William Penn overlooks the city. Okay, I love the Philly cheesesteaks, too; but this city has a culinary wealth from which to choose.
Steeped in history and political chatter, Fork serves food that is off the charts and would be the envy of any San Francisco chef. My beet-and-goat-cheese salad tasted as if it just came from the farm. The seared-scallop salad and crab-cake sandwich were award winners, but the Korean BBQ ribs were the show stopper. It’s obvious that West Coast “fusion,” with Asian hints and garden-fresh produce, is now a smash on the East Coast too!
(“IF YOU GO” – Fork Restaurant, 306 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA, (215) 625-0425. www.forkrestaurant.com)
From fancy food to the classic American diner, my campaign travels had it all. A stop in my hometown of Milwaukee for the Wisconsin primary in February took me to Miss Katie’s Diner, on the edge of downtown. Snow covered the ground, and wind chills dipped to minus twenty degrees in the Badger State, but people have to eat! Miss Katie’s is the “Who’s who” of Wisconsin food.
On any given visit, you might run into the Governor of Wisconsin, a Green Bay Packer or the chairman of Harley-Davidson. Everybody eats at Katie’s, including then-President Bill Clinton on a visit in 1996. He brought German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in for a visit, dubbed the “Sausage Summit.” Both men love to eat lots of food. Press Secretary Mike McCurry described the meal as “combat.” Miss Katie’s has a shrine to both men, with all the press clippings. Hillary Clinton made a campaign stop here in February, 2008, but discreet workers wisely made no mention of her husband’s eating “marathon” years earlier.
The diner is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and serves a wide variety of classics. The restaurant is owned by the Picciurro family, longtime Milwaukee restaurateurs famous for their BBQ rib restaurants. (The “fall-off-the bone” tender, smoked ribs are served at Miss Katie’s, too.) For breakfast, I had eggs basted in fresh Wisconsin butter, with buttered toast, buttered hash browns and bacon. Miss Katie’s web site says “Breakfast can be the most decadent meal of the day!” Okay, so my cholesterol is a little high.
(“IF YOU GO” – Miss Katie’s Diner, 1900 W. Clybourn St., Milwaukee, WI. (414) 344-0044. www.miss-katies-diner.com.)
The best part of campaign dining is that you get to sample the whole nation if you’re lucky. One of my favorite stops was Jake’s Famous Crawfish in downtown Portland, Oregon. Nestled in the historic district, this popular eatery has been here since 1898. It looks like an old wooden barroom from the wild, wild West. The dark, rich woodwork and large picture windows give it a warm, yet open and airy feel.
Jake’s is now part of the famed McCormick & Schmick group of seafood restaurants and - given its closeness to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean - there are plenty of local treats in store.
The real deal is “Happy Hour,” with food specials that are unreal. I had an Oyster Shooter ($1.95), a Tempura seared Ahi Tuna Eggroll with wasabi, ginger and dipping sauce that was to die for ($3.95), and the Seafood Etouffee (filled with fresh local crawfish, salmon and Dungeness crab) in a nut brown sauce with rice ($4.95). The portions were huge. I had assumed "Small price, small sample." Boy, was I wrong. This could have fed two, easily!
Jake’s is also something of a presidential museum. It has been a stop for candidates for decades. The old 1960 poster of Richard Nixon promising “honest government” is a hoot. There’s also a rare photo of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson in a church pew. The bartenders torture customers with presidential trivia, with people having to guess where that photo was taken. I was one of the first customers in a long time who knew the correct answer, but I won’t spoil the surprise by telling!
(“IF YOU GO” – Jake’s Famous Crawfish, 401 S.W. 12th Ave., Portland, OR, (503) 226-1419. www.jakesfamouscrawfish.com).
I was sad to see the primary season end this year, because the political drama between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was so compelling. I was sad to see the “food trail” end, too! My last stop was the last primary in South Dakota. Once again, the heartland did not disappoint. Rapid City is a gorgeous city on the eastern edge of the Black Hills in the shadow of historic Mount Rushmore. From the hills in the west, you can see for what seems like eternity across the flat midwestern prairie. Doing my broadcasts “live” from Mount Rushmore right below the four great Presidents was an unforgettable thrill of a lifetime.
The South Dakota chow was very good, too. Hillary Clinton held a campaign rally inside Tally’s Diner, a downtown restaurant that has been featured in Rachel Ray’s popular book about great “cheap eats” across America on just $40 dollars a day. (Miss Katie’s Diner in Milwaukee, which I reviewed earlier, made that list, too!)
I was crammed into Tally’s with over 200 supporters and a mob of press from all over the world. Hillary Clinton came around and shook everyone’s hand, gave her impromptu stump speech and then hit the road. But Tally’s owner, Kathy Johnson, would not let the former first lady leave empty handed. “They made her breakfast ‘to go'," said Johnson. “It was an ‘everything’ omelet.” That means it had sausage, ham, bacon, cheese, peppers, onion, etc., etc. - everything but the kitchen sink! Sides of hash browns and toast, too.
As soon as the campaign and media cleared out, I decided to stay for lunch. The meatloaf with mashed potatoes, gravy and local corn, was simply the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere in America. All desserts are homemade, including the luscious chocolate pudding pie with whipped cream that I had no business eating (but did anyway!)
(“IF YOU GO” – Tally’s Restaurant, 530 6th St., Rapid City, SD., (605) 342-7621, no web site; Mt. Rushmore National Park, 13000 Hwy 244, Keystone, SD, (605) 574-2523. www.nps.gov/moru)
Bon appetit! Keep coming back to www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.