Tauscher not crabby like her meal

Barely a moment after Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) sits down in the roomy booth at Bistro Bis, one of the lunch specials catches her eye: softshell crab.

A minute later, while her dining companions continue to stew over their own decisions, she begins to make the sell.

“Do you like seafood?” she asks.

Yes, we reply.

“Do you like softshell crab?” she continues.

Never had it, one of us confesses. Are they good?

“Yee-ah!” she replies in a tone that really says, “You’re kidding, right?”

Tauscher knows good softshell crab.

“When I lived in New York and worked on Wall Street, and the Fulton Fish Market was right there, in May we would have softshell crab, so much so that you didn’t have them the rest of the year,” she says.

She makes a convincing case. Softshells are far cleaner to eat than regular crab  (no cracking, no dirty fingers, she says). May is prime time for the seasonal seafood (softshells are best in months that don’t have an “R,” she explains). So it’s decided: the softshell crab special for everyone.

The waiter comes by, and she tells him of her victory.

“I would like the softshell crab, and I’ve oversold them here to my friends, so I hope they’re really good,” she says.

That quick, efficient food choice leaves the former investment banker to explain how she makes a decision over which other diners can toil.

“I make decisions so fast, people are always saying, ‘Well, you know, did you just order the first thing?’ No, but I know what I want,” she says. “Working on the New York Stock Exchange and on Wall Street, decisions just come — you just make them. It helps to be able to make a decision. If you can have a reliable process for analyzing, and you understand what the scope of the decision is and how to get everything you need to make the decision, all you have to do is do it.”

Tauscher may be among the few people who can back up that philosophy with experience. Long before she was ordering softshell crab at a Capitol Hill power restaurant, she was breaking through glass ceilings in a way that would crush a more tentative spirit. At age 25, Tauscher was one of the first women, and one of the youngest, to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

In keeping with her general philosophy on decisive decision-making, when the time came for her to get a job, she just did it.

“I just needed a job,” she says. “I had loans to pay back, and I had to help my parents pay my sisters and my brother through school, so I went to Wall Street and got a job.”

That same confident process led her to leave New York after 15 years and move to California. She made another swift decision in 1996 when she had five days to file her paperwork to run for Congress. Twelve years later, she chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces subcommittee, shaping key components of the government’s defense budget.

“Apparently I have a thing for male-dominated institutions,” Tauscher jokes when talking about her career on Wall Street followed by her tenure in Congress.

Tauscher also has a thing for grocery stores.

She grew up near Newark, N.J., where her father was a grocery store manager.

“Food, in our family, was like the family business,” she says while taking sips of a Diet Coke with a lime wedge.

Tauscher recalls her father bringing the family boxes full of new foods that would come into his store. She and her siblings were the guinea pigs.

“We would check out cereals,” she says. “You know, say whether we liked the Snap, Crackle, Pop. I remember we tried Cocoa Puffs, and I thought it was ghastly, and my sisters loved it.”

Even then, Tauscher knew fairly quickly which foods she liked and which ones she didn’t.

“We tried Froot Loops,” she says. “I think it was just sugar shock, and I didn’t want pink milk. I wanted regular milk. My sisters loved it.”

When lunch arrives, the congresswoman’s eyes brighten as she admires the two golden-crusted crabs, set on a dome of rainbow-colored vegetable slaw and next to three miniature globes of whipped potatoes.

“Doesn’t it look pretty?” she marvels.

Tauscher neatly packs her fork with a morsel of crab and a bite of slaw while smoothly continuing the conversation.

Tauscher worked at a restaurant in New Jersey called The Manor during college, as well as several stints at cooking schools, including Le Cordon Bleu in France.

But she holds a special place in her heart for grocery stores.

“I’m a Safeway girl,” she says, noting that Safeway is headquartered in her district.

To prove that, she even knows her Washington Safeway’s nickname — the “Social Safeway” in Georgetown — and where to get the best grocery-store guacamole — Trader Joe’s.

She grocery shops in her district, too, and uses the time to talk to constituents.

“Somebody’ll come up behind me and say, ‘Are you Ellen Tauscher?’ ” she says. “And I’ll say, ‘No, she’s much younger and thinner than I am.’ They look at me, and I say, ‘Um, all right, yeah, it’s me.’ ”

Tauscher cleans her plate and orders a decaf coffee with milk. When it arrives, she adds a packet of Splenda.

The conversation shifts to the presidential election. Tauscher, who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), draws a comparison that, considering her history with grocery stores, seems natural.

“I look at the Democrats as we’re Coke and [the Republicans are] Pepsi,” she says. “Our brand, Coke, has to appeal to most people, and I think it’s important who’s on our ticket.

“It’s important that we make sure that we have the right recipe. If we are Coke or Diet Coke, we have to have the right Coke brand going out there to beat Pepsi.”

So which does she prefer, Diet Coke, Coke or Pepsi?

For the ever-decisive Tauscher, the answer is simple: Diet Coke.