I drank the Obama Kool-Aid, but it took a while. I didn't quite see him as the messiah as quickly as everyone else. I may not be a native Chicagoan, but I've lived here long enough to see the Hired Truck Scandal, unapologetic nepotism, a woeful Tax Increment Financing system, one that lent 18 million dollars from my tax district to build a new public school that, because of politics, my 19-month-old son may never be allowed to attend.
And, unlike the tangential, ridiculous relationships with Bill Ayers or Osama bin Laden that Republicans attempted to paint as BFF or is that BTFF ? (Best Terrorist Friends Forever) situations, Obama was closer to the most recently indicted Blago buddy Tony Rezko. In fact, there was that whole shady land deal to buy his sweet Kenwood crib. I wondered could any Chicago politician, Obama included, grow up here successfully without kowtowing to the system at some point? Call it gun-shyness. Call it skepticism. Call it what you want. I call it the Chicago Way.
That being said, when Rudy Giuliani took the podium at the Republican National Convention and the Texas delegation intent on raping our wildlife started yelling "Drill Baby Drill!", with a chilling fervor reminiscent of the blood lusting throngs at the Roman Coliseum, I started to believe. Hell, I would have voted for Ross Perot at that point.
But there was no Grateful Dead-like procession of dancing skeletons emerging from the closet, and I finally embraced the nuance, intellect, and passion that is Obama. I even whipped out the checkbook and made a donation, the first political donation I've made since I co-ran a state senate campaign in Michigan in 1998.
There were many reasons to like the guy, but as a food writer, I loved the fact that he was a Frontera/Topolobampo dude while Dubya was still choking on pretzels and chomping on Tex-Mex style burritos as big as his head. I loved Obama's fervor for Spiaggia and liked that he wasn't rocking out his anniversary at the Olive Garden.
But, as you all now by now (since it was covered as if there was a nuclear standoff going on) Barack was back dining at Spiaggia the other night, by some accounts, his third time this year.
I can appreciate restaurant allegiance, but, I gotta say, it's time to branch out. A guy who promised change needs to set a fitting example with his dining habits. If you're gonna blow $700 (according to some reports) on linguini and clams, you might try doing the same at Alinea. After all, in its commitment to move cuisine forward, it is the Barack Obama of restaurants.
I can see why Obama might not hit Moto. After all, chef Homaro Cantu uses lasers and makes Krispy Kreme soup. Based on the propaganda in this last election, I can see the smear campaign now: "Obama eats donuts with a spoon," or "Obama hangs out with food terrorists who deploy illegal laser weaponry."
Obama is also a purported chili lover. I don't know where he gets his meat soup these days, but I'd suggest that after he throws out the first pitch at the Sox home opener this year, he should head over to downtown Bridgeport and sidle in at the Ramova Grill for the sweet spiced Greek style bowl. Located a few blocks from the 11th Ward Democratic party offices, the birthplace of the Daley plan, he should feel right at home.
Assuming he likes to mix his Mexican food yen with his love of chili, then he should head over to Chuck's Southern Comforts Café in Burbank for Chuck's Bowl of Red. The chef is a former Bayless acolyte, and his chili, which features roasted anchos, a touch of chocolate, a fat dollop of sour cream and crispy tortilla strips, offers the best of both worlds.
Even if the President-elect doesn't move past Tony Mantuano's fine cooking at Spiaggia, I am heartened by the fact that his run has highlighted how far the role of a chef has come in our culture. Eight years ago and certainly before that, no one even knew the name or the role of the White House chef. It's likely the only qualification for the job that the secret service really cared about was that any candidates wouldn't poison the Commander-in-Chief.
It wasn't long ago that Alice Waters was sending letters to the White House imploring the Clintons to hire an innovative American chef. Today, one of Laura Bush's supposed culinary directives is for the use of totally organic ingredients at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Now, Art Smith and Rick Bayless are bandied about as potential great American heroes (not the William Katt "Believe It or Not, I'm Walking on Air" version, but the true blue kind) if they accept the post.
Food has truly come a long way. Of course, we have miles to go, and so while Obama's checking out some of these new spots in Chicago (I'd be happy to act as a guide, text me later, Big O), or scoping the eats in Washington, I hope he also invites guys like Michael Pollan, Waters, Eric Schlosser, and our own local school lunch reformer Greg Christian to the table for some substantive discussions.
I know he's got war and economy stuff to think about right now, but farm subsidies, the meaning of organic certification and the childhood obesity epidemic are no small shakes. Not to mention, when that's all said and done, I'd sure like to see some restrictions lifted on unpasteurized cheeses and imported meats. But, hey, small steps ... the man needs to relax for a week or two, if that's even possible. And while he does it, I'd sure like to see him doing it with a little of Grant Achatz's Black Truffle Explosion.