The question, of course, is authenticity, as it seems always to be where Hillary Clinton is concerned. She wrestled with the issue as far back as 1967, when, as a student at Wellesley, she wrote to an old high-school pal, John Peavoy, "There is a smorgasbord of personalities spread before me."
A smorgasbord, of course, is a diverse buffet from which one can pick and choose those foods that strike the fancy and suit the mood. So which personality has Hillary selected? Or, in correct Scandinavian tradition, is she still going back for seconds and thirds?
That food preferences are clues to personality was the firm belief of French gourmand and essayist Jean Antheleme Brillat-Savarin, who in his 1825 work, The Physiology of Taste, wrote, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are." In the absence of an interview with the lady herself, I have pieced together clues to Hillary's eating habits from various reports, to try to determine whether she is tough and self-assured enough to function as president or is merely a food-fashion victim who opts for the flavor of the moment. Does she indulge wild, instinctive cravings with a hat-over-the-windmill bravado, or is she an abstemiously disciplined eater who can be counted on to make the sensibly healthful choice?
In short, would the real Hillary in a private moment go for an Oliveburger or a Boca Burger? When, in May 2007, Associated Press reporters asked the presidential hopefuls to name the single item that most recalled their back-home origins, Hillary Clinton chose the Oliveburger served at the Pickwick, her high-school hangout in Park Ridge, Ill. This Greek coffee shop is still in business, next door to a landmark Art Deco movie house, also called Pickwick. To find out just what an Oliveburger might be, I called the owner, George Paziotopoulos, who bought the restaurant from his cousin about eight years ago.
"It's 6 ounces of grilled ground beef sirloin on a toasted hamburger bun with a thick topping of chopped, pimento-stuffed green olives," he said, pointing out that he was not the owner during Hillary's time. However, in May 2003, he welcomed her back with Barbara Walters and a local friend in tow, and while filming an interview, they all ate (reportedly "with great relish") what had been renamed the Hillaryburger, seasoned with Dijon mustard, a pretty fancy condiment for a Greek diner.
Unable to get to Park Ridge to take advantage of the $6.75 Oliveburger special, complete with choice of soup or salad and coleslaw or fruit, I cooked up my own version. It was a powerfully brassy, acidic concoction with the merry Christmas touch of the red and green olive topping that, along with the mustard, zapped any flavor of beef. Strong stuff for a strong palate, I thought, with a certain respect.
Next, I interviewed Walter Scheib, who worked as the White House chef for the Clintons (and, briefly, for the second Bushes). Scheib recently published a cookbook memoir, White House Chef, which offers many clues to Hillary's preferences. Had she ever asked for an Oliveburger or Hillaryburger, I asked?
"No, but I always kept Boca Burgers in the freezer," he said, referring to a brand of soy protein patties. "She liked them for snacking." When I obtained some Boca Burgers and pan-grilled them, as directed, they turned out to be miserably limp, grassy-tasting little disks that might have been produced by Rubbermaid.
And so, the question remains: How could the lover of the lusty Oliveburger ever settle for a Boca Burger? Or had the years wrought changes?
I found few reports of Hillary's gastronomic adventures at Wellesley, but in one of her soul-searching letters to Peavoy, she referred to a "boy from Dartmouth" with whom she had spent a Saturday evening. The boy turned out to be Robert B. Reich, later a Rhodes scholar with Bill Clinton, and still later the president's labor secretary. Reich acknowledged that he and Hillary had gone to see the Antonioni film Blowup, during which Hillary wanted popcorn with a lot of butter. "A lot of butter. Significant? You be the judge," Reich wrote in his blog.
I reserved judgment until I was able to learn of her other preferences and contradictions in Scheib's book. To the first lady's credit, when she hired Scheib away from the Greenbrier, a spa resort in West Virginia, she insisted on having American cooking rather than traditional French fare, wishing to reflect the ethnic diversity of the country and to showcase American food and wine producers. Call it patriotic or merely politically correct, but that was the culinary persona she chose to project.