by Todd Kliman
So, okay: We know where Barack Obama stands on taxes, on Iraq, on torture, on health care. But what kind of First Eater will he be?
As the great gastronomer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."
At this point, it's too soon to predict what an Obama cabinet will look like, much less guess at the contents of the Obama cupboard, but we do know this: In matters of taste, as in matters of state, the bold-minded president-elect rejects the false dichotomies (black/white, red state/blue state) that too often are used to divide and conquer.
Regular guy or arugula guy?
Republicans roared with delight when candidate Obama suggested to a group of Iowa farmers that they grow this pricey, peppery green, so beloved by the Whole Foods-set (there are no Whole Foods stores in Iowa). This was the first of many "-ists" to be pinned on him, in the innocent days before "terrorist," "socialist," and "redistributionist."
More recently, a New York Post Page Six item spread the (erroneous) word that the Obamas spent a night at the Waldorf Astoria and ordered lobster, champagne and Iranian caviar (not just caviar; terrorist caviar).
These stories tell you a lot more about the sticky residue of the culture wars than they do about Obama. At best, he's a foodie. But even that definition seems unlikely. He hates beets and asparagus. His favorite food is fried chicken, his favorite recipe is chili, and he's no stranger to the foods of deprivation -- In Dreams from My Father, he confessed that he ate grasshoppers, dog and snakes during his boyhood in Indonesia.
Conclusion: His tastes are as catholic as his sensibilities.
On the prospects for booze, pizza, and dining out, after the jump...
Beer drinker, wine drinker, booze drinker?
On a campaign swing through Latrobe, Pennsylvania, he was at pains to demonstrate his taste for beer, according to New York magazine. "What do they call it? A Yuengling? Trying a Pennsylvania beer, that's what I'm talking about ... Is it expensive, though? Wanna make sure it's not some designer beer or something."
Wine appears to be his drink. The same magazine reports that he has a 1,000-bottle wine cellar at his Hyde Park home. What is not known is what the contents of that cellar are -- assuming there are contents.
Conclusion: Even a thousand bottles would not approach the magnitude of Thomas Jefferson's oenological obsession (the architect of the Declaration of Independence nearly bankrupted himself to stock his White House cellar). But the mere presence of a storage system as big as that does suggest that the future occupant of the White House is an aesthete -- easily the biggest in several generations. Good thing for the Democrats the report was not in wide circulation.
Comfort food or cuisine?
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes lovingly about MacArthur's, a well-worn soul food spot on Chicago's northwest side where a plate of chicken and mac 'n' cheese costs just $7.50 and where ex-inmates in need of a second chance are members of the staff. Security has made drop-bys problematic, but Obama is said to regularly order take-out when he's home.
The candidate made no attempt, however, to hide his anniversary dinner plans this past October. Obama and his wife Michelle celebrated at Spiaggia, the luxe Italian restaurant with a commanding view of Lake Michigan that Esquire food critic John Mariani has called one of the top destinations for Italian cooking in the country.
The president-elect's favorite restaurant is said to be Rick Bayless' Topolobampo, a high-end homage to regional Mexican cooking. Interestingly, Chicago's two most talked-about restaurants, Alinea and Moto -- champions of the so-called molecular gastronomy -- are seldom, if ever, linked to Obama by the local media.
Conclusion: A restaurant centrist: respectful of tradition, mindful of the verities.
Deep-dish or thin-crust?
Italian Fiesta in Hyde Park is his favorite pizzeria. It doesn't serve the thick-crust, eat-it-with-a-fork pies that Chicago is best known for. Its claim to fame is a thin-crust pie.
Conclusion: In pizza, as in much else, he's a clear-minded pragmatist, governed less by a sense of "what should be" than by what is. Liberals expecting a fierce, lefty agenda are forewarned.
State dinners or dining out?
Bill Clinton, man of appetites, broke the mold. Until Clinton, presidents seldom ventured beyond the White House to dine with any regularity. Their public dining was generally confined to official functions.
John Kennedy had a handful of favorite spots around town, stemming from his days as senator, including the legendary Billy Martin's Tavern, where he is said to have romanced Jackie, but the Kennedys are widely regarded as having brought an air of glamour to the State Dinner.
The Reagans harked back to that age of Camelot. Aside from Nancy Reagan's much-publicized luncheons with Mike Wallace and others at the Jockey Club, they seldom ate out, a predilection followed by their successors.
Bush the Elder took a liking to Peking Gourmet, a Falls Church Chinese spot, putting it on the map of DC food lovers. But that was the extent of his contribution to local culinary lore. If George W. Bush had a favorite DC restaurant in his eight years, nobody knew it (a trip to the mediocre Mexican restaurant Cactus Cantina was perhaps his biggest outing).
Clinton with his voracious curiosity expanded the role of the First Eater. He ate out widely, most famously at Mark Miller's Red Sage (the stamp of approval helped the restaurant to weather the dismissal of some key critics and triggered a wave of culinary innovation that has transformed a conservative dining scene).
At the same time, the Clintons were keenly attuned to their power to effect a change in Americans' table manners. They encouraged the transition from French-style service to American-style service at State Dinners, started a vegetable garden on the roof and an herb garden in the Jackie Kennedy Rose Garden, and insisted that official menus be made up of contributions from small farmers and purveyors (in this way anticipating the current obsession with local and regional produce.)
Conclusion: Obama's inclinations -- toward community, toward engagement -- suggest he's more likely to follow Clinton than Bush; he's already a fan of two highly-praised DC restaurants, The Source and Charlie Palmer Steak. He's also on record as saying he wants to give his young daughters, Malia and Sasha, a semblance of a normal life, which means an active participation in the life of the city.
At this stage, of course, it's unclear what sort of at-home entertainers the Obamas will be. Still, rumors are already circulating that Art Smith (Oprah's favorite chef) may take over the White House kitchen; conveniently, the two-time James Beard Award-winner recently set up shop on Capitol Hill with his upscale soul food restaurant, Art and Soul.
Smith would be a significant appointment -- the first White House celebrity chef. And a rare opportunity for the Obama administration to popularize and democratize the often-rarified world of gastronomy.
Todd Kliman is a James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic and the food and wine editor of Washingtonian magazine. The Wild Vine, his book about the Rosetta stone of American wine, is due in 2009.