Politics & Policy

If You Like Creamed Raspberries in Plastic . . .

Eating Senate-style.

Washington, D.C.“Are you sure those aren’t currants?” asked my friend Rob. I probed my pie uneasily, and determined that they were raisins, as I expected. The pie came in a small triangular box with a clear lid. The box wasn’t labeled, and neither was the refrigerated shelf from whence it came. I grabbed it because it looked like apple pie. Once I got it out of the box, I saw that it did have some sort of filling approximating apples. But from there the pie was an unholy abomination: The filling had raisins in it and the crust had been inexplicably frosted and glazed. It was half pop-tart, half pie, and all bad.

Rob’s dessert of raspberry Jell-O, was also a curious confectionery concoction. It consisted of alternating layers of Jell-O and heavy cream. Buried in the top layer of cream were, inexplicably, three seedless grapes and a large-ish under-ripe strawberry. The idea of that much heavy cream was totally unappetizing to me but Rob found it palatable. As far as his culinary tastes go, “I’m a creature of the 1950s,” Rob helpfully explained.

Suffice to say, I was not impressed by my first trip to the Senate cafeteria. Not that I expected to be. Before I went, I checked out some independent reviews:

‐ “Lunch at the caf is disgusting.”

‐ “If you work in one of the Senate buildings you’ve no doubt been to the ‘Senate Caf.’ It’s generally pretty quiet and the options are bleak. If you’re going to venture down to the dungeon your best bet is to bring your own food and to use their plastic utensils and paper napkins.”

‐ “The food options are pretty . . . eh. . . . The atmosphere — as mentioned, it’s totally dated and ugly. Come on Senate. Get your act together.”

Now I’m not condemning the Senate cafeteria because I’m wholly averse to institutional food. Washington, D.C., is full of buildings that have their own private dining rooms and cafeterias of varying degrees of quality. In fact, having been a journalist covering politics in D.C. for over nine years, I’ve become something of a connoisseur of these places. For my money, the best one is the cafeteria at the World Bank/International Monetary Fund, where the options are ethnically diverse and fruits and vegetables fresh and plentiful.

What’s truly amazing is that the United States Senate is heavily subsidizing its cafeteria — and it’s still terrible. So much so that even Democrats are using the P-word: The Democrat-controlled Senate passed a bill the first week of June to privatize the Senate restaurants. Sen. Dianne Feinstein led the charge, noting that not only did the Senate restaurant cost taxpayers $1.3 million last year but that food and service were “noticeably sub-par.” Note to the Senate: If you’re going to get fat off the tax dollars of working Americans, shouldn’t the process at least be enjoyable?

The Senate is downright ashamed of its cafeteria. The cafeteria is in the Dirksen Senate office building. I had to learn this through Google, even though, as I mentioned, I’ve been covering politics in D.C. for nine years and live and work only a few blocks away. The number of times I’ve lunched with sources, friends, and acquaintances who work in the Senate is far too numerous to count. Not once — even when I was already in the Senate office buildings — had anyone ever invited me to lunch in the Senate cafeteria.

Instead, I had to beg for an invitation. In order to get into the cafeteria I needed a guide, or, more specifically someone with a congressional ID to get me in. My friend Rob (note: not his real name) — who works on the Hill in an administrative capacity — was eager to serve as my culinary sherpa.

The cafeteria itself is broken up into two parts. In the bowels of the Dirksen building, at the beginning of a long hallway, there’s what looks like an attempt at an upscale dining room with white tablecloths. The dingy basement surroundings and steady stream of people engaged in loud conversation walking by don’t exactly help with the ambience.

This fine-dining component of the Senate cafeteria is buffet service only — and fine dining or not, clearly the food comes from the same kitchen. Paying for the privilege of eating fried chicken that’s been drying out in a chafing dish for hours, well, no thank you. You’re best off skipping the tablecloth and heading straight to the other part of the cafeteria, at the end of the hallway. There the fried chicken will still be drying out under a heat lamp, but at least it will be cheaper.

In between the fine-dining room and the other part of the cafeteria is a gift shop that sells gum and frozen yogurt, as well as bizarre Senate souvenirs including coffee mugs with the Senate seal made from “100% U.S. Corn Plastic.” What is corn plastic, you might ask? Well, it looks and feels like cheap plastic. Allegedly, it’s a biodegradable form of plastic, though its environmentally friendly properties have been overhyped. Further, there’s one salient fact you might consider before you buy that green coffee mug: Corn plastic breaks down and becomes biodegradable if you heat it to 140 degrees. Why, that sounds like an ideal material to put your piping-hot coffee in every day! Sure enough, there’s a disclaimer inside the coffee mug saying that it should not be put in a dishwasher, in order to preserve the corn plastic’s “unique luster.” I’ve got an idea — let’s secretly replace the Senate’s coffee with the chemical byproducts of overheated corn plastic. Let’s see if anyone can tell the difference.

As for the Senate cafeteria proper, it’s surprisingly small — maybe 30 feet by 30 feet. You can slide your tray around the metal railing on three sides to pick up everything from grilled burgers to build-your-own tacos, with a salad bar in an island in the middle. The lack of food options isn’t really a problem — it’s that among the options there are few good ones. The service I had was friendly and competent, but then again I didn’t ask too much of the service. While it would be unfair to expect the Senate cafeteria to become a bountiful mélange of cutting-edge cuisine with daring flavor profiles, there’s nothing wrong with the cafeteria that a competent manager prodded along by the typical restaurant profit motive couldn’t fix.

So why exactly are the Democrats, normally loath to privatize government services — especially when, as in this case. it means displacing unions — so keen on it now? It’s not as if the food in the Senate cafeteria suddenly got terrible, or the operation suddenly started losing money. (It has lost $18 million in the last 15 years, hemorrhaging money unabated throughout the Republican leadership of the Senate as well.)

The more likely answer is that the Senate is green with envy over the House of Representatives cafeteria. Over on the House side of Capitol Hill, the cafeteria has been privatized for some time and, as you would expect, the food is much better.

But the most notable thing about the House cafeteria as it now stands is that since Nancy Pelosi took over as Speaker of the House, the cafeteria has introduced one environmentally friendly measure after another. It’s gotten to the point that this is the number one pet peeve of Rob, who eats at the House cafeteria several times a week. It’s not that he opposes attempts at being earth-friendly; it’s that when he has to take his food back to his office, the flimsy, biodegradable food containers and trays degrade before he’s even finished eating, leaving food and moisture all over his desk. Also, the new, environmentally friendly disposable forks taste funny, he says.

As you can see from my ill-fated foray into the gift shop, the Senate is also trying to go green. I imagine Senator Feinstein won’t let Speaker Pelosi — her fellow member of the California congressional delegation — show her up as the more eco-savvy legislator. So when the newly privatized Senate cafeteria reopens, expect it to have low-carbon-footprint meals and utensils that unexpectedly taste of umami.

But if this is what it takes to finally get the Senate in gear and save taxpayers millions, so be it. It’s just a shame it takes newfangled and even suspect environmental concerns to motivate the Senate leadership, when a common-sense solution such as privatization should have been implemented years ago.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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