Congressional cook-off

With much of the recent chatter around Washington focusing on pork, and specifically on how much of it lawmakers might rightfully gather for the folks back home, those same members on Tuesday night seemed to have settled on just the opposite tack.

Rather than bringing home the bacon, a bevy of senators and congressmen — all of them stationed about the ritzy digs of Penn Quarter’s National Building Museum — seized on a chance to offer up tastes of their various regional stylings.

That chance came courtesy of the 26th annual March of Dimes Gourmet Gala, which at first blush may have appeared no different from your standard-fare Washington fundraiser.

Push past the museum’s four-story columns and throng of schmoozing socialites, though, and you’d get a glimpse of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) — all adorned in white aprons.

Lining three walls and framing the cavernous hall sat some 20 booths, each boasting two congressmen.

Behind tables laden high with silver servers, spouses beamed and served up samples while members held court, shaking hands and cracking jokes.

But the lawmakers’ eagerness to indulge guests with flavors of their respective states trumped the evening’s social opportunities. All things culinary stole the spotlight, with platters ranging from the Midwest’s tater tot casserole, prepared by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), to a Southwestern white chicken chili, served up enthusiastically by New Mexico’s Rep. Steve Pearce (R) and wife Cynthia.

Perhaps that was fitting, since in a sense this wasn’t an entirely chummy affair. These lawmakers were here to be judged, after all — and sure, on something relatively trifling for a change — but judged nonetheless. At the night’s end, winners would be crowned.

Plus, these legislators take their food rather seriously. Their taste buds having apparently been influenced by D.C.’s gourmet leanings, their creations combined the down-home with the upper-crust — though in what precise combination, it wasn’t always clear. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), for example, was all easy charm and Southern drawl (talking proudly of his NCAA bracket, for instance) until it came to the recipe for the sauce accompanying his New York strip steak.

Us: “What’s your secret ingredient?”

Cohen: “Spices.”

Us: “What kind of spices?”

Cohen: “Spices.”

All secrecy notwithstanding, most of the hors d’oeuvres hewed closely to Cohen’s model: a sort of haute cuisine/comfort food fusion. And most, like Cohen’s, involved the redder among meats; tonight’s was a decidedly fatty affair. In that category, Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) pesto beef crostini, a tangy commingling of textures, proved most memorable.

Still, some of the evening’s standout offerings incorporated leaner varieties of flesh. Cynthia Pearce touted the couple’s chicken chili, smothering a colorful spread of tortilla chips, as “heart-healthy.” (Her husband, with a nudge and a wink, recommended a not-so-heart-healthy dose of tequila to wash down the concoction.)

But it was Sen. Kit Bond’s (R-Mo.) smoked salmon with cucumber and dill on buttermilk biscuits that epitomized the evening’s heartland-to-homeland synthesis. Like a fine wine, the dish slid across the palate in stages, its constituent elements unraveling themselves slowly. Crumbly-soft, made-from-scratch biscuit melted away into briny pickle, only to yield, finally, to the salmon’s smoke-velvet essence. And all this in a package the size of an egg.

The bystanders’ gushing over the cuisine served as the perfect jumping-off point for the evening’s stars to showcase their premier, some would say even prerequisite, ability: the magnetic charisma with which elected officials can captivate an audience.

Case in point: Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who showered smitten reporters with keepsakes (keychains, business cards), all the while regaling his listeners with tales that touched on any number of subjects, from a trip he took to South Korea to the free-trade agreements he’s advocating. He even spoke on the war in Iraq, at which point he produced a photograph of one of his sons, a Navy medic who served in that conflict.

Displaying his command of several well-honed audience-engagement techniques, shifting his intense blue eyes from one enthralled guest to another and punctuating his sentences with light touches on the arm, Wilson led us to the ornate dining area, complete with tuxedoed servers shuffling about beneath an array of lights befitting a Broadway musical.

Even a wheelchair couldn’t keep Tim Johnson away. Life’s curveballs haven’t kept him out of the political game, nor the culinary one, as evidenced by his smoked pheasant with cherry-walnut chutney. Between his relaxed laughter and the undaunted cheer of his wife, Barbara, it was clear the Johnsons still regarded this sort of event as their bread and butter.

Equally adroit was McConnell’s wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who charmed a host of hungry patrons crowding around the power couple’s cordon. Chao’s first-ladylike demeanor — amiable chatter, gracious smile — shone in spades as her husband played the man’s man, chuckling and talking shop over samples of thoroughbred pie.

And although Chao and McConnell have been event loyalists for the past five years, it was Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) and wife Dana who reigned triumphant, winning the Best in Show award for their succulent Thai Cowboy Steak with Peanut Sauce. Also lauded were Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), all for various niche accolades.

As to the evening’s other success story: The gala raised $1,041,000 for the March of Dimes, and both patrons and politicians — whether they won or lost — surely went home feeling victorious in the battle for hearts and stomachs.