What will President Obama eat when he comes to Portland for a campaign fundraising dinner on Friday?
He may sample a little Atlantic cod and wash it down with some wine from France or Oregon. Or he might not eat anything at all until he gets back on Air Force One.
Uncovering what’s on the menu, and other details about the Obama dinner, has been about as difficult as finding a Republican who supports the president’s plan for health care reform.
I mean, really, folks. You would think I was asking for nuclear secrets instead of what’s going to be on donors’ plates at the Portland Museum of Art.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the president will be in town Friday for a fundraising reception at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, where as many as 1,700 people will be able to hear him speak.
Tickets for that event range from $100 for general admission to $10,000. The $10,000 donors will get to have their photo taken with the president.
A much smaller dinner, which about 100 people are expected to attend, will be held that evening at the art museum. Admission to that event ranges from $7,500 to $30,800.
Such prices might lead ordinary folks to think the menu will include gold-dusted scallops and artisanal hummingbirds fed by hand until they sprout diamond-encrusted wings. You would think the organizers would want to dispel such notions of fancy fare, especially since we all know Maine food tends to be locally raised and simply prepared.
But the museum’s caterer, Aurora Provisions, was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and no matter how nicely and persistently I inquired about the food, they weren’t talking.
So I approached Michael Czin, Northeast regional press secretary for the Obama campaign, to see if he would help a gal out. His reply was a simple, “We won’t be able to accommodate your request.”
Turns out the Obama campaign is as tough a nut to crack as the Food Network, which makes chefs who appear on its shows sign draconian documents practically promising financial ruin if they leak anything to the press.
I was able, however, to find out some information through other sources. I’ve confirmed that Browne Trading Company will be providing cod for one of the courses.
And I found out which wines will be served.
The rest is speculation, and for that I turned to two knowledgeable sources who have attended many of these events themselves.
OFTEN, HE DOESN’T EVEN EAT
Eddie Gehman Kohan is founding editor of the Obama Foodorama blog (obamafoodorama.blogspot.com), which documents the food policies and preferences of the Obama administration and the first family.
If the president is attending an event that includes food near Kohan, she somehow manages to get in. She is also part of Michelle Obama’s regular print press pool.
Kohan is, ironically, a Republican, but believes that food is “the ultimate bipartisan issue.”
My other source is Dorothea Johnson of Falmouth, founder of the Protocol School of Washington and former protocol adviser to the Joint Military Attache School in Washington, D.C.
Kohan told me the secrecy around the presidential menu is not unusual. Even the menus for the much lower-key “Dinner with Barack” events, in which supporters who donate as little as $5 are given the opportunity to have dinner with the president, are kept under lock and key.
“Eventually, they’ll post photos in Flickr, which may or may not be the right dishes, and then the people he dined with will dish about it,” Kohan said. “It’s just this bizarre spotlighting that he’s dining with citizens, but you can’t know what he ate.”
Even when the White House releases the menu for a state dinner, she said, it’s often missing a course.
Certainly, security is an issue, but Kohan said the Secret Service has numerous other ways of dealing with that, including randomly selecting a dish for the president.
The disappointing truth is that, in most cases, he just doesn’t eat. (Sorry, $30,000 donors. Sorry, cooks.)
“More than half the time when the president shows up at a dinner, he doesn’t actually eat the food,” Kohan said.
“Air Force One has two kitchens on it,” she continued, laughing. “He is definitely not lacking for sustenance. The fundraisers are more so he can speak and mingle and greet the guests. There are remarks that usually his (press) pool are allowed to hear, and then they are ushered out and he has private time with the guests.”
KEEP IT MOVING
If you are attending one of these events and anticipate being in a receiving line or having your photo taken with the president, do Maine proud (and do the president a favor) and don’t get all star-struck and act a fool, like you’re chatting with George Clooney.
Johnson says it’s OK to shake the president’s hand and speak to him first. (“This is not royalty.”) But just say “hello” and move on. There will be lots of people in line behind you who want their chance. And let’s face it, it’s not like Obama is going to remember who you are come Saturday morning.
“Mamie Eisenhower was known as someone who would hand your hand right to the next person,” Johnson said.
President Clinton had the opposite attitude, and was known for holding up receiving lines because he liked talking to the guests.
Barbara Bush used to invite Johnson and her students to events when George H.W. Bush was vice president. She told Johnson it annoyed her when people would go on and on and on.
“Barbara Bush said people would want to know, ‘How are you,’ and she would feel like saying, ‘My feet are killing me. I feel terrible,’ ” Johnson said, laughing. “And she said they would say, ‘Well, that’s so wonderful to hear.’ You know, people never pay attention to what you’re saying.”
Guests at the dinner can speak to the president, but it is never proper for the staff to chat him up, Johnson said. She said it’s likely someone will be training the staff in the do’s and don’ts of serving the president before Friday night.
“They have to be very careful that the staff does not try to talk to the president,” she said. “I remember when a waiter was fired at the White House for telling President Reagan a joke.”
Kohan says the Obama fundraiser receiving lines are like “well-oiled machines.”
“If it’s a photo receiving line, it’s literally a handshake, how are you, and then you pose for the photo,” she said.
Wouldn’t a menu look nice framed alongside that photo taken with the president?
Yeah, I think so too.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org