A Meal Fit For A Candidate: John McCain When Sen. John McCain visits his old stomping grounds in Annapolis, Md., he's likely to eat at Pusser's Caribbean Grille. The maritime-themed restaurant shares its recipe for Haitian-Creole seafood gumbo.
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A Meal Fit For A Candidate: John McCain

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A Meal Fit For A Candidate: John McCain

A Meal Fit For A Candidate: John McCain

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Now we turn to an important matter of state. If John McCain wins the election, what kind of meals will be served at the White House? Last week, we cooked with the owner of one of Barack Obama's favorite restaurants in Chicago. Today, we're going to meet the chef at one of John McCain's regular spots. We sent NPR's Daniel Zwerdling to Annapolis, Maryland, to investigate whether the kind of food a candidate eats reveals something about the man.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: John McCain was a navy pilot, right? He flew off aircraft carriers. Everybody knows that. He trained at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. And when he goes back to visit, he often eats at Pusser's Landing. The manager, Michael Schwartz, says it's not hard to see why. There are huge models of military ships all over the restaurant.

Mr. MICHAEL SCHWARTZ (Manager, Pusser's Caribbean Grille): When you walked in, we have a carrier out front. We have the Constitution.

ZWERDLING: Pusser's restaurant is right on the dock. It overlooks a waterway nicknamed Ego Alley. That's because people parade past the restaurant in their boats. Inside Pusser's there are life preservers on the walls and replicas of leaping fish. And here's something interesting. Just about everybody on the staff has seen John McCain because he eats here when he visits his son. In fact, his son's the fourth generation in McCain's family at the Naval Academy. But I couldn't find anybody at Pusser's who's really talked with the senator.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: We see him coming in here, having lunch or dinner with his son over in the corner away from everything. You know, a very quiet, very unassuming man.

ZWERDLING: Have you personally had any interactions with him?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: I've had, hello, how are you? Welcome to Pusser's. But that's it. No conversation outside of just taking care of him. And we respect his privacy and don't really bother him.

ZWERDLING: The executive chef here is Jim Eriksen. He presides over a huge stainless steel kitchen. He says he's proud to cook for people like John McCain, but it doesn't faze him.

You said earlier, you don't even know when John McCain is out there eating your food. So who do you cook for? Who's in your mind when you're slaving here over this hot stove?

Mr. JIM ERIKSEN (Chef, Pusser's Caribbean Grille): I cook for myself. My standards are pretty high, I think. So that's what I go by. It's what I want it to be. But I think mainly I cook not for myself to eat, but for myself to be proud. Does that make sense? That's what I try to do. So John McCain is eating what I want him to eat.

ZWERDLING: Pusser's restaurant is a living example of globalization. It's in a Marriot Hotel in one of the most historic cities in America. And most of Pusser's dishes have a Caribbean theme: jerk chicken, coconut rum shrimp. And over the next few minutes, Jim Eriksen is going to teach you to make his famous Haitian-Creole seafood gumbo.

Mr. ERIKSEN: Ten years ago, the chef's association in this area started a competition for gumbo. The first year we came in third place. The next four years we came in first place. And then the next five years after that, we've gone back and forth between first and second place.

ZWERDLING: I think a lot of people might be a little scared by the thought that they're going to have to make a roux, and all that stuff, and a shrimp stock. Is this going to be pretty easy for all our listeners to make?

Mr. ERIKSEN: The steps that I have to make this actually pretty much make it impossible to screw up. Let's get started. The first step is we're going to make some shrimp stock, which is the liquid for the gumbo. What I did earlier today is I got one pound of large shrimp. I peeled and deveined them, and I saved the tails and the shells. I'm going to start of by sauteing that with just a little splash of olive oil, and then add a little white wine. Let that go for about five to 10 minutes...

ZWERDLING: Wow, that's it? Ten minutes for shrimp stock?

Mr. ERIKSEN: Not a whole lot to it.

ZWERDLING: Who knew?

Mr. ERIKSEN: Yeah. It's a well-kept secret.

ZWERDLING: All right, while you're cooking, the first thing I would really love to know is how the heck did you get the name Pusser's? Weird name.

Mr. ERIKSEN: Pusser's is a corruption of the word purser. Back in the old British Navy, 350 years ago, the purser was in charge of all the ship's storage and issuing equipment, things like that. And the conscripts for the British Navy couldn't say purser very well, so it came out pusser. So it was the purser's rum, so it became pusser's rum.

ZWERDLING: If I were lucky enough to be in the British Navy in the 1700s...

Mr. ERIKSEN: That wouldn't be lucky.

ZWERDLING: How much rum would I get from the purser, from the pusser?

Mr. ERIKSEN: Way back when, you got a half-a-pint tot twice a day.

ZWERDLING: Twice a day? How did they sail?

Mr. ERIKSEN: So you got a cup of rum twice a day, and it was 95 proof rum.

All right, on to the red pepper.

(Soundbite of chopping)

ZWERDLING: And Eriksen chops a few cups of peppers and celery and onions. In the world of Creole, they are often called the holy trinity of cooking. They're the base of all kinds of dishes.

Mr. ERIKSEN: Now we get started on the main part, the Gumbo. And the first part of making any gumbo is making the black roux, or the chocolate roux, as I like to call it.

ZWERDLING: And it turns out that making the roux is simple, too. You just melt some butter and add some flour, and you whisk and you keep whisking for about 10 minutes. This roux will thicken the gumbo and give it that deep, rich look.

Mr. ERIKSEN: We're starting to get a little color. But try to imagine a chocolate bar, that's the color we're going to stop at.

ZWERDLING: When John McCain made a campaign stop in Annapolis, he held his press conference right outside Pusser's restaurant. And on the surface, Jim Eriksen is the exact kind of voter that McCain is trying to reach. He grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. He got his first job in a restaurant when he was 16 years old. He washed dishes.

Mr. ERIKSEN: We are just about there. You can smell the aroma coming off there of the very caramelized flavor. Can you smell that?

ZWERDLING: But Eriksen says he was a dishwasher for only a couple of months because they kept promoting him to the bread station, the salad station, the fryer station.

Mr. ERIKSEN: And I went back and forth between that and other jobs, but cooking ended up paying better, so I stuck with that. And I've been with it ever since.

ZWERDLING: Was that really one of the main reasons you stuck with it, because cooking paid better?

Mr. ERIKSEN: That's what got me started with it. This is back in the '70s. Back then, most of your jobs were, you know, 4.50 an hour was a decent wage. So being a cook started to become a pretty good job, like 30 percent more than I could make in any other kind of jobs.

ZWERDLING: And what were your friends doing? Like, what did you figure you would do if you weren't being a cook?

Mr. ERIKSEN: Well, back then, two of my best friends in high school ended up going into the Army, and that was never for me. A couple of guys joined the fire department, things like that. And there also was a local bus factory pretty close, and actually a lot of people I went to school with went off to be the factory worker, which again was never anything that I wanted to do.

ZWERDLING: What did they say to you when you said, I'm going to be a cook?

Mr. ERIKSEN: Not really a whole lot. No one ever was derogatory about that. Being a chef, even back then, it was a good profession to be in, a solid, steady, more of a blue-collar profession. And it always has been because it's a hands-on working type thing. Actually, my Mom didn't want me to follow that for cooking as a career. She looked at it as more as I'd be a cook or a scullery worker all my life. My mom passed away quite a while ago, so I don't - she never saw me as a successful chef.

All right, we're coming up on milk chocolate.

ZWERDLING: It's interesting you say that cooking was a blue-collar profession, because now with TV, it's really become almost like being a rock star. You don't picture yourself as a rock star?

Mr. ERIKSEN: No. As you can tell by my girlish figure, I'm no stranger to a knife and fork. So I don't think I have the TV profile, so to speak. The jolly, fat guy wouldn't make it on the screen. I'm going to go right there, turn that off, grab my vegetables.

ZWERDLING: Eriksen takes the roux off the heat. He dumps in the peppers and onions and celery.

Mr. ERIKSEN: Listen to this, we're going to…

(Soundbite of sizzling)

Mr. ERIKSEN: It's really good...

ZWERDLING: And then he stirs in some okra and the stock, some herbs, and sausage.

Mr. ERIKSEN: And now we're also going to add Worcestershire sauce, which was invented in India.

ZWERDLING: When Pusser's restaurant hired Eriksen to be the chef, he had to learn something about the Caribbean. After all, the restaurant's theme is "A taste of the real Caribbean." So the company sent him to the British Virgin Islands, mainly to eat. And Eriksen says at first he was kind of disappointed.

Mr. ERIKSEN: Because everybody is recommending, oh, you got to go to this restaurant and that restaurant and do this and do that. So I went to these places, and they were kind of the higher-end type of restaurants down there, and they were all trying to be American food. So I found better food at the roadside stands, the little places along the side of the river where everybody's standing up and eating, and more authentic.

ZWERDLING: And you told me something before we were recording. You told me something sort of funny. You said the owner of Pusser's went with you to some of these restaurants, but you said he wouldn't be caught dead going to the roadside stalls.

Mr. ERIKSEN: Well, I can't speak for him that he would or he wouldn't, but he never went out with us to the roadside places. And I can't see him going to those places though. If you want to put that in, that's fine. I mean, I don't think he'd be angry with that.

A radio is not a real way to smell, but this really smells good right now. You've got to trust me.

ZWERDLING: So that means it's finally time to cook the seafood. Eriksen sautes some garlic and olive oil, dumps in a big batch of clams and mussels in their shells. He adds scallops and shrimp at the last minute. And finally, he pours on the gumbo.

Mr. ERIKSEN: We get a serving bowl here, and we'll show you what our finished product looks like.

ZWERDLING: It's like a seafood orgy in a bowl, wrapped in a rich sauce like brown velvet.

Mr. ERKINSEN: All right, that looks pretty darn good right there.

ZWERDLING: This is why we wanted to interview you, Jim. This is just an excuse to have your gumbo.

Mr. ERIKSEN: I get that a lot.

ZWERDLING: And now Jim Eriksen says something surprising. He's been the chef at Pusser's for 13 years, and he's never even met his famous customer. But are you aware that when he's here, when John McCain has been here, and you've been cooking, did you know that that particular gumbo you were making at that moment was going to feed John McCain? Did that make you nervous?

Mr. ERIKSEN: Usually I find out about that stuff after they're already eating. It's, hey, by the way, John McCain's in the dining room and - but I don't change the way I do things knowing that such and such is there, or so on and so forth. For me, there's one way to do it, and that's the right way. So everybody gets it the same way.

ZWERDLING: Incidentally, I asked Jim Eriksen if he's going to vote for John McCain for president. He said probably. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can find the recipe for Haitian-Creole seafood gumbo and see Chef Jim Eriksen on action at our Web site, npr.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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