A Senate Lunch Tradition Draws on the Flavors of Home

 , The New York Times  |  Updated: June 11, 2015 13:40 IST

A Senate Lunch Tradition Draws on the Flavors of Home
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., falls several grins short of a giddy man. He lopes through the halls of the Capitol as if he has just emerged from a weighty briefing at the Select Committee on Intelligence.
But scanning a table of house-made pickles, spicy shrimp cocktail sauce and three sugar cream pies from Indiana to feed fellow Republicans on a recent Thursday, Coats was nearly elated. 

"This is the home run I had been hoping for," Coats said before offering an exposition on the history of the pie. (It is a Hoosier winter treat invented in the absence of fruit, he said.)

It was Coats' turn to provide lunch for Thursday's group, a weekly meeting of Republican senators catered by the host's home-state restaurants, takeout joints, bakeries and the like, during which the lawmakers hash over major issues (with extra napkins).

As with so many things in the Senate, Thursday lunches are imbued with history and competition. In the 1970s, conservative Republican senators organized a steering committee to discuss strategy and ideas over lunch. Another group met informally to talk about the issues of the day. The groups, both of which met weekly on Wednesdays, would also convene jointly once a month in the office of a senator who had been chosen to cater the session.

The cantankerous Sen. Jesse Helms would have North Carolina barbecue brought in, and the tradition soon spread to showcase the bounty of a senator's home state. Sen. Ted Stevens' month was particularly popular, because of his Alaskan seafood. The meeting was eventually moved to Thursdays. "The steering committee ate to live, and the Thursday group lived to eat," said Jade West, who was the staff director of the Republican policy committee in the 1980s.These days, the Thursday lunches are overseen by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine (lobster and blueberry pie), who keeps the calendar and watches with amusement as colleagues try to outdo one another. The meals are either donated by the restaurants and bakeries or paid for by the individual members.

The first time she had okra was in Thursday's group, when a Southern senator showed it off. There was another first: Rocky Mountain oysters, from cattle raised on the ranch of Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho and served to Collins without explanation or warning.

Some hosts highlight a particular city, as did Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, who recently brought in a taste of Omaha, including a Thunderbird Salad with Thunderbird Dressing, Reuben sandwiches and eCreamery butter brickle ice cream.

Coats took the statewide approach, with the shrimp cocktail made famous by St. Elmo's restaurant in Indianapolis, where the signature flavor owes to extra horseradish, and the Indiana sugar cream pie from La Dolce Vita bakery in Roanoke, Indiana. (It has the texture of Brie and the sweetness of buttermilk pie.)

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But local delicacies notwithstanding, Republicans all tip their hats to Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. On his day, a team descends the night before to smoke meats across the river in Virginia, then arrives at the Capitol with a spread of pulled pork, beef brisket and baby back pork ribs. Sam's BBQ-1 in Marietta, Georgia, delivers baked beans, coleslaw, rolls and macaroni and cheese. Isakson opens his lunch to Republicans and Democrats, as well as the Capitol Police, his office staff, members of the Georgia congressional delegation and, ostensibly, any reporter obsessively monitoring whatever is for lunch on Thursday.

"The Senate has long, grinding hours when we debate really tough issues," Coats said. "Thursday gives us the privilege of doing something special, which is to show off your state. I take it very seriously."

Comments© 2015 New York Times News Service

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