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Political food for thought: Obama, Biden, McCain and Palin's states bring a mix of flavors to the table
"Food is our common ground, a universal experience," wrote James Beard, but with all the political posturing and finger-pointing these final weeks on the campaign trail, it's difficult to imagine the presidential hopefuls and their running mates agreeing even on something as bipartisan as a tub of popcorn.
Still, the American dinner table is a powerful metaphor for the national electoral process. From a richly diverse mix of regional ingredients (say, Delaware peaches or Alaskan salmon), culinary traditions (think Chicago hot dogs and invented-in- Arizona chimichangas) and individual creativity, Americans have created memorable dishes and well-developed cuisines. Chefs, restaurateurs and food writers familiar with the regions connected to the candidates found plenty of overlaps, harmonies and unifying flavors.
"This is a case where both presidential candidates have really strong roots with a distinct culinary identity," says Michael Stern, co-author with his wife, Jane, of more than 30 books on regional roadside cuisine in America. "With the vice presidential candidates it's more the ingredients, things like Alaskan halibut . . . and crabs from Delaware that define their regions rather than a set cuisine."
A menu featuring dishes and recipes from regions representing all four candidates might be dangerously closer to a Las Vegas hotel buffet than a state dinner. It'd be a crazy quilt of influences and tastes: for John McCain, a duck tamale from a favorite Arizona restaurant, for example, with some Virginia ham; for Barack Obama, pirogi and pizza from Chicago alongside tropical fruits from Hawaii and spices from Indonesia; roasted game and wild blueberries from Sarah Palin's Alaska; shoofly pie from Pennsylvania and a heritage poultry breed, the Delaware chicken, from Joe Biden's states. But instead of chaos, culinary professionals see delicious combinations.
Gale Gand, cookbook author and executive pastry chef at Chicago's Tru restaurant, says Chicago's candy companies define the city for her. There are dozens -- some still regional (Fannie May, the chocolate company perhaps best known for its Pixies (caramel-pecan turtles), some now national (such as Brach's), that started there. "We have a real history of a sweet tooth in Chicago."
For a dessert to satisfy that sweet tooth and also give a nod to Obama's paternal heritage, Gand would make deep-fried calas, a sweet Creole rice fritter with ties to African akara (bean fritters). "These little cakes were an important part of American history, which feels appropriate for Barack . . . only I'd have to do a pumpkin version as I've heard he's a pumpkin fan."
Another way to evoke those African influences is with a recipe from chef Marcus Samuelsson, author of the contemporary African cookbook "The Soul of a New Cuisine" and executive chef at New York's Aquavit restaurant, for a unique sweet corn bread made with yeast. More subtle and complex than many corn breads, with jalapeños and honey combining in an intriguing way, it has a finer texture, too.
Roy Yamaguchi, chef-owner of the Roy's restaurant chain founded in Honolulu (Obama's birthplace), is a master of fusion. He says he would serve a sushi roll wrapped in thin slices of seared Chicago beef and stuffed with Delaware crab to unite the presidential candidate's background with that of his running mate.
This recipe for mulled cider is a simple, seasonal drink that could be thought of as a similar Obama-Biden combination -- apples (Johnny Appleseed as well as Joe Biden is part of Pennsylvania history) with spices including cloves, which are native to the part of Indonesia formerly called the Spice Islands, and cardamom, important in Indonesian cuisine.
Modern Southwestern cuisine is a fusion of several influences, so when chef-owner Vincent Guerithault of Vincent on Camelback restaurant in Phoenix imagines a harmonious McCain-Palin menu, he envisions rack of lamb with spicy bell pepper-jalapeño jelly, with a gratin dauphinois (potatoes baked with cream and Swiss cheese) as a nod to Palin's Idaho birthplace.
For the home cook who wants to have time to study up on ballot measures, though, some easier Sunday night supper dishes are in order. Arroz con chile poblano (rice with roasted poblano peppers), a side dish made with fresh tomatillos and poblanos, is a happy edition to anyone's Southwestern repertoire. As an entree, a recipe from Anchorage chef (Kincaid Grill) Al Levinsohn's recent cookbook "What's Cooking, Alaska?" that uses a panko-crumb topping to update the classic fisherman's preparation (slather with mayo and bake) is a crowd-pleaser and keeps the halibut moist and tender. "If I had to choose between the two tickets based on food alone, it would be a really tough decision," says Michael Stern, who grew up in Chicago but has a soft spot for Southwestern cuisine. "On the one hand you've got Chicago street food like red hots, rib tips, and of course the pizza . . . but then there is the amazing Southwestern food but also newer Mexican street food in Arizona, like the bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dog that's grilled until the bacon melts into the dog and piled on a bun with onions and salsa.
"I really don't know that I could give up either one."
Garbee is a freelance writer.