"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 3, 2024

A White House State Dinner - A Food Fight Over Fatback, Catfish, And Cherokee Squirrel Meat

‘Help me, Jill', said the President to his wife when he learned that he was to host a formal dinner for the President of France.  Joe had been intimidated by French cooking ever since he labored over his plate of corned beef and cabbage and first heard of Julia Child.  

He of course had never come even close to a dish of frogs legs or escargots, and had eaten the same watery Irish stew, colcannon, and boxty every night. The memories of the potato famine were still very much in his mother's mind when she prepared dinner, and there was always some kind of potatoes on his plate, great mounds of the stuff, tasteless, gooey, and unappetizing. 

'Eat up, Joey', his mother said when she saw him pick at his food.  'It’ll put some meat on those bones, it will' and with that, grace, and a special thanks to St. Patrick and the Virgin Mary, the family tucked into the same miserable fare night after night. 

The cafeteria at the University of Delaware offered nothing much different from the lumpy, tasteless Irish food Joe ate at home.  A low-end public university, it had no strawberry endowments like Yale did, or the Harvard lobster tails provided by F. Farnsworth Hobby, financier, seafood lover, and generous supporter of the school. 

Hobby reported that the first time he had a lobster roll, filled with succulent meat, and drenched in butter, he was hooked.  His summers on the Cape were banquets of steamed lobster, stuffed lobster tails, lobster bisque, and of course lobster rolls. 


So Joe ate the university's fare - just as bland and spiritless as what his mother cooked - chicken pot pie, chicken a la king, meat loaf, and spotted lamb, all greasy, tough, floury, inedible concoctions prepared by, ironically, Irish women in the kitchen.  

During his early adult years Joe never ventured beyond this American cuisine.  In Delaware no one knew or cared about anything beyond meat and potatoes, and so political dinners never offered anything more.  Washington was different.  It had not yet evolved into the foodie heaven it now is, and catered to the cattleman and rancher crowd - big slabs of meat,  hefty baked potato, and an iceberg salad slathered with dressing.  

Joe had never seen beef of such size and to be honest, he had trouble swallowing this fatty, bloody, gory thing. At least the lamb bits in his mother's Irish stew were cooked to nuggets and when mixed in with all the rest were indistinguishable as meat; but these great cuts of beef which fell off the plate and left no room for the potato, so served on the side, were disgusting. 

The White House had what was considered an accomplished chef when Joe was in residence.  Thanks to Obama, an eater of surprisingly sophisticated tastes for a black man - or at least half a black man. His mother was a white hippy who served him grains and root vegetables, nothing even close to the French and Italian dishes he ordered from the White House kitchen.  

'Probably Harvard did it to him', Joe mused, still resentful of the snobs who went to Harvard and Yale while he soldiered on at a fourth rate school than nobody outside Delaware would ever even consider. 

As President, Joe had to open up, try new things, expand his horizons - not for his nightly meals with Jill, for that was not much more than his childhood favorites of chipped beef on toast, turkey casserole, and bangers and mash - but for state dinners which because of his progressive mental inabilities were very few.  

His handlers did not want to expose him to embarrassment and ridicule before la creme de la creme of American and foreign society.  He could easily forget who was sitting next to him at the head table, so the staff prepared oversized, large-font place-cards for all guests to help him out.

So, the state dinner for the President of France was to be a truly royal affair, and he told the kitchen staff to pull out all the stops, share no effort or expense to give the honored guest a truly sumptuous American meal. 

'And what might that be?', asked the head chef. 

Now, Joe Biden was not the person to ask since all he knew was corned beef and cabbage, pot pie, and potatoes, so he gave the man carte blanche.  'Whatever', said the President, already on to other more important business. 

This open-ended assignment, however, was not as easy as it sounded, for when the chef presented his suggested menu to LaShonda Jackson, the White House Assistant charged with overseeing the menu, she frowned, smiled, and said, 'Try again'.  

She, a black woman from rural Mississippi, brought up on collards, cornmeal, and fatback, wanted Mr. Ooo-La-La to taste real American cooking, not these fancy-dancy inedible mini-portions loved by the California crowd.

Billy Porter was also a Mississippian but a white one with a bass boat and a gun rack, a man used to noodling for catfish and frying them up in his backyard cooker in Eupora with his  buddies. 'Buds and buds', he used to say at these fish frys, toasting his good ol' boys with a Bud Light. 

How Billy ever made it to the White House was on everyone's minds.  He was not White House material, but then again neither was LaShonda Jackson, an affirmative action hire to fit the bill - Southern, black, and female, basta. Billy had been proposed by the Congressman from his district who had gone fishing with him in Arkansas and liked his simple ways and good sense right from the start.  If a man could haul in bass like Billy, he belonged in Washington. 

Nevertheless there he was and a member of the advance menu team.  The Chief of Staff wanted a food diversity as diverse as the nation itself, so instructed LaShonda to be inclusive.  Despite her better judgement and natural suspicion of this bass-fishing cracker, she had to consider his opinion, and of course it was fried catfish, biscuits, hush puppies, and peach cobbler. 

Jose Alvarez felt it important at this point to jump in and promote his culture's contribution to American cuisine.  He had grown up on cheap Tex-Mex border food.  His mother had never been farther south than a few miles from the border, had no idea of the sophisticated cuisine of Oaxaca, and had flipped her own tortillas over an open fire, roasted some goat meat for stuffing, and chopped hot chilis and tomatoes from her small patch of a dusty parcel in a dope-running neighborhood of Tijuana.  This is what should be on the menu, not greasy catfish and collard greens. 

Singing Wolf Adair, a full-blooded Cherokee had been added to the White House staff to complete what the President thought was the most diverse staff in American history, so he suggested offerings of elk, bison, and especially squirrel.  He knew that squirrel was a Southern thing but his tribe prepared it wrapped in sage and sorrel, buried it in a hot firepit, and ate it with a mix of wild berries and nuts. 

And on it went.  The gay men from San Francisco wanted their cuisine - the sophisticated, foraged, elegantly prepared grouse and sea urchin platters made famous by of their own, Barney Bradford of Chez Francois of Potrero Hill.  The lesbians from Bernal Heights wanted their jackboot-and-flannel specialties; and the.....well, not hard to guess where this was going. 

Biden had indeed created a hodge-podge, mishmash, ethno-racial potpourri at 1700 and everyone wanted their say.  Food was a cultural marker, an iconic tribute to ethnic and racial history, and the French president should be treated to - exposed to - as much of it as possible. 

As a result the meal was as inchoate, impossibly mixed-and-matched as the various sponsors of it. Who ever ate tacos with foraged sea grass?  Or marinated squirrel with pork butt?  The written menu itself, indicating and explaining every item read like a drug disclaimer, three pages to be exact of cultural apocrypha and foodie history. 

The wine was good Californian - here the President wanted to beat the froggies at their own game, so a magnificent Flowers Pinot Noir was chosen along with the bourbon and Tennessee mash. 

Joe noticed that his counterpart was picking at his food just like he did as a boy, but distracted by Taylor Swift who had generously agreed to sing at the dinner and sat next to the President, breaking all protocol, he quickly forgot the French president.   

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