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Audacity of Hops: Foodies ride Obama tide

Zilly Rosen cheered the election of Barack Obama with sugar and all-purpose flour.

Before the final election results were even certified, Rosen was whipping up some 1,200 cupcakes and fashioning them into an Obama mosaic. Afterward, she gave them to local campaign volunteers in Buffalo, N.Y.

"Food is so frequently the cornerstone of any celebration in any culture," said Rosen, who is both an artist and baker.

She is now working on a 5,600-cupcake installation of Obama and President Abraham Lincoln for the Smithsonian American Art Museum that will be on display Feb. 14.

"Every cupcake I was making was like another vote," she said. "Another vote for Obama!"

Rosen, like other artisan food producers and chefs across the country, has been captivated by the president-elect and is using him as inspiration for culinary creations. Restaurants are offering inauguration specials, and Obama's image is popping up on everything from chocolate confections to sugar cookies at Safeway grocery stores. Meanwhile, Chicago restaurants that Obama frequented are becoming tourist attractions, and celebrity chefs have chimed in about the sort of message they'd like to see the next president send to the American public about healthy eating.

"The way our government works, with checks and balances, there are certain limitations to the executive branch," said Danny Meyer, a New York City restaurateur who sent a letter along with chef Alice Waters and Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl urging Obama to name a White House chef who emphasizes local and organic food. "There are virtually no limits on the bully pulpit or the symbolic nature of setting trends and putting things in people's consciousness."

Foodie-in-chiefPresidential historian Barry H. Landau said Americans have always been fascinated with what the president and his family ate.

Landau, who authored "The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Democracy," said that there have been major foodie presidents — from Ronald Reagan, who special-ordered steaks from the 21 Club when he was on a movie set, to William Howard Taft, who weighed 335 pounds and determined where he was going based on food and golf.

But now, thanks to blogs and the 24-hour news cycle, the tiniest details are available about what Obama and his family are eating.

"Barack attracts so much attention about food because he's skinny — and always seems to be eating," said Eddie Gehman Kohan, the creator of the blog Obama Foodorama (Obamafoodorama.blogspot.com), which tracks all things Obama and food related. "The ultimate fantasy is that you can be a foodist and still be skinny."

So when did all the Obama food buzz start?

Gehman Kohan thinks two comments prompted it, the first in the summer of 2007 when he asked, "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" The second came in April when he responded to a reporter's question about President Jimmy Carter's meeting with Hamas with "Why can't I just eat my waffle?"

Gehman Kohan said she was fascinated at how those food comments would then be used in political attacks, such as how Obama was "waffling" on an issue.

But a lot of the draw is pure star power. "Top Chef" season 4 contestant Spike Mendelsohn opened up a burger restaurant in Washington, D.C., this past summer, and put Obama and McCain burgers on his menu during election season. The Obama burger — with blue cheese, bacon, red onion marmalade and horseradish mayo — was far more popular.

"Obama brings a very hip, rock-star feel to D.C., and food is very popular," Mendelsohn said. "Everyone wants to be involved in food and know who is eating what."

Harry S. Truman old-fashioned to the Audacity of Hops
Some chefs are interested in who used to eat what. Dennis Marron, the executive chef of the Grille at Morrison House in Alexandria, Va., started working on a Lincoln-inspired menu long before the inaugural committee announced that Obama himself would be eating a similar Lincoln-inspired inauguration menu.

"They had a grand buffet," said Marron of Lincoln's second inauguration menu. "They had four different kinds of beef, three different kinds of veal, pates, poultry … I thought it was all pretty neat."

Marron is modernizing the menu to suit today's palate, and offering dishes like pates served with port syrup and grilled pheasant with shoestring potato and huckleberry jam.

At Poste, in Washington, D.C., bar supervisor Rico Wisner is using the inauguration as a chance to show off some classic cocktails with a presidential twist, like the Americano=Change, made with Bluecoat Organic Gin, Campari and a sweet vermouth foam. He based the Harry S. Truman old-fashioned on a story he read about how Truman always thought old-fashioneds were too sweet. Finally, according to Wisner, the White House staffer mixing Truman's drinks gave up and poured him bourbon on the rocks. Wisner's version only has a splash of soda and a cherry and orange garnish.

D.C. home brewer Sam Chapple-Sokol was inspired to brew a special "InaugurAle" for the occasion called The Audacity of Hops. He asked his father to roast him a special blend of coffee, with beans from Hawaii, Indonesia and Kenya. He then combined the coffee ingredients with Victory malt and Liberty hops.

"The more I thought about it, the more nerdy I got about it, and tried to incorporate all the details I could," Chapple-Sokol said. "I really thought about what ingredients could personify Obama in beer."

A reason to celebrateLori Mason, a co-owner of Klee Brasserie in New York City, said that offering Obama–related products or a special inauguration menu — theirs includes Chicago brats — gives people a reason to go out again.

"Right now people are so inundated with the recession and war — there are so many reasons the media are telling us to stay home and don't spend money," Mason said. "With Obama, people are really looking for optimism and hope, to be reassured it’s OK again. To go out, to spend money and to have a bit of fun."

And some businesses with a tie to the Obamas got more business than they ever dreamed of. During the Iowa caucuses, word got out that the family liked the chocolate chunk cookies at Baby Boomers Cafe in Des Moines. They are now planning on filling orders for nearly 50,000 cookies during inauguration week that are going to be sent around the world.

"It's a good cookie, but I had no idea that it was going to become this huge phenomenal thing," said owner Rodney Maxfield. "In Iowa, we are these huge celebrities and it's weird. I'm glad people are enjoying our cookie, but who would have thought this was going to happen?"

Places that the Obamas frequented in Chicago are also getting in on the action. Medici on 57th, a cafe that serves pizza and burgers, now offers an "Obama eats here" T-shirt in the vein of "Washington slept here." They are selling so quickly that the restaurant has trouble keeping the shirts in stock, according to manager Mattie Pool.

There was even speculation that Rick Bayless, the executive chef of Topolobampo, a favorite of the president-elect, and Frontera Grill, was under consideration for the position of White House chef.

While Bayless never took the rumors seriously, said Jen Fite, his publicist and manager (the Obamas ended up sticking with current chef Cristeta Comerford), those in the food community were excited to have a president in office who is interested in good food.

"He's been here twice since he was elected," Fite said of Obama's visiting Topolobampo. "Everyone jumps out of their seats applauding. I almost cry when I think about it. The buzz he generates when he is in here is almost suffocating."   

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