- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

Political squabbling over major domestic and international issues was all but forgotten Tuesday night at the March of Dimes' Gourmet Gala, where the prize for best appetizer is practically the equivalent of victory in a legislative floor fight. The annual tasting and dinner, which raised $910,000 for charity, is famous for allowing "celebrity chef" pols to compete with their favorite dishes, often regional specialties.

Attorney General John Ashcroft stood behind his wife, Janet, as she talked up her almond caramelized brie, a slightly crunchy yet sweet dish that she said was more to her liking than his.

"He likes to think he's good," Mrs. Ashcroft joked about her husband's prowess in the kitchen. "He's rather limited, though."

"I'm really into country ribs right now," Mr. Ashcroft said, his mouth seeming to water at the thought. "It's all a matter of boiling and simmering."

Gala organizers chose a patriotic theme and hardly a suit was to be found without an American flag lapel pin. A band played Sousa marches and other familiar tunes, such as "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," as roughly 900 guests mingled through the vast National Building Museum while sampling a wide range of delectables.

Sen. Larry E. Craig got into the spirit with red, white and blue suspenders and some spicy all-American hot dogs made with "those weiners you buy in the store." Nothing too fancy, the Idaho Republican noted. Just a bit of "sauce made with Dijon mustard and currant jelly."

"I'm an eater, not a cooker," said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, as he stood with his wife, Danealia, behind a batch of coconut shrimp with apricot pineapple salsa they like to prepare back in their home state of California. "I help with cleaning up, though," he added.

It was possible to learn a lot about congressional eating habits, as well.

"Jim makes crab dip a meal," joked Ginny Turner, wife of Rep. Jim Turner, a Texas Democrat. Although they both stood by the health benefits of their dip, Rep. Tom Udall, and his wife, Jill Cooper, were more forthright.

"People looking for low fat should not eat this," Mr. Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, said, handing a guest a taste of his nacho mushrooms, a portobello mushroom steeped in mozzarella and pepperoni.

Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and her husband, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, served a familiar Kentucky Derby treat: Baby Hot Browns.

"Like most Washington couples, the only thing we make is reservations," Mr. McConnell joked.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt was not about to allow his home state of Missouri to be outdone. He and his wife, Jane, offered up a meaty St. Louis Bacon Cheddar Dip.

"I'm a hobby cook," Mr. Gephardt said. "I like to make Italian and French food, mostly. … The biggest problem of cooking is making a mess."

"He'll spend all day cooking and mess up every dish in the house," Mrs. Gephardt agreed.

One of the most popular booths contained Sen. John W. Warner, who bellowed, "Crab cakes, get your crab cakes here," to a long line of waiting gourmands.

"I've been cooking since I was in the Navy," Mr. Warner barked as he stood guard in a Navy apron and cap. When asked if there were any difference between his military grub and the night's fare, he coughed under his breath: "Quite a bit."

The judges came up with a bipartisan solution to the evening, giving top honors to Republican Sen. Ted Stevens' Alaska Fish Stew and Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin's Carlson's Smoked Whitefish Plate, although both dishes somehow slipped past a reporter's notice.

The hors d'oeuvres, of course, were just the beginning. Overstuffed guests rounded out the evening with a full dinner and dancing.

Funds also benefit the Mama and Baby Bus, a mobile health clinic that ministers to disadvantaged mothers and babies in the District.


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