Now you’re cooking

Now you’re cooking

Locals kasher the White House kitchen — and cater a Chanukah party

Once upon a season’s greetings, in the Reagan White House, the president of the United States hosted a small gathering to light a menorah. At the time, and for years afterward, guests were offered cake and cookies on plastic dishes, together with some beverages.

As time went by, the White House annual Chanukah get-together grew, and so did the food service accompanying it. While some kosher food was brought in from the outside, those strict about observing dietary laws still had cause for complaint.

Last year, the traditional Chanukah party was a bit less traditional, with non-kosher food as the main offering and a separate kosher buffet on the side. Confusion reigned. Guests grumbled that this was hardly the way to treat "Jewish friends of the White House."

Word got back to first lady Laura Bush. She consulted with the president and announced that she wanted to serve kosher food to everyone on the appropriate occasions.

Rabbi Levi Shem-Tov, of the American Friends of Chabad in Washington, was said to be partially responsible for her decision. A few weeks ago, he met with her on a different issue. When the subject of kosher food was raised, Bush told him she wanted the White House kitchen kashered for this year’s Chanukah party, which was held, a few weeks early, Tuesday evening.

"The first lady said if the function is kosher, it makes her guests comfortable, and that makes it more comfortable for her if all her guests …eat the same food. This was a decision she made herself," said Shem-Tov, noting that he deeply appreciated her initiative.

With more than 500 guests expected, this year’s food choices went far beyond cookies and small cakes. The White House staff got right to work, calling for bids from kosher caterers. The winner was Betty’s Caterers in Philadelphia, whose owner, Peter Ostler, consulted the Philadelphia Vaad and then got in touch with the coordinator of kosher certification at the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, Rabbi Binyomin Taub.

Taub partnered Betty’s with Gary Rubin’s Petak Caterers in Fair Lawn, under Rabbinical Council of Bergen County certification, and they were all given the White House go-ahead. Says Taub, "Because guests included ultra-Orthodox educators from around the country, no mistakes or shortcuts could be tolerated, and we had to be scrupulous." Shem-Tov says that Taub was very helpful to the White House staff.

Ostler and Rubin began planning the menu and logistics. A week before the event, Taub drove down to the White House to explain to Chef Chris Comerford and the White House usher exactly what would happen when his kashering crew showed up.

He explained about kosher beverages and told them how to read product labels and what to look out for (like bugs in the salad). He also helped them set up a system to feed people in the White House on "K-Day," so that no one who was hungry would notice the interruption. He and the staff even decided where hand-washing stations could be set up for those who ritually wash their hands before eating bread.

"As excited as we were to be doing the job, it seemed to me that the White House was even more excited to have it done. This was a historic first, and it was clear the first lady wanted it to be perfect," Taub told The Jewish Standard.

The kashrut crew rented a kitchen in a Philadelphia temple for pre-prepping, and chefs from Petak’s and Betty’s prepared ingredients and dishes that would get their final "cook-through" at the White House.

On Monday afternoon, two trucks loaded with double-sealed platters — and carrying Petak proprietor Rubin and mashgiach Rabbi Mendel Minkowitz, joined later by Rabbi Hillel Baron from Lubavitch of Howard County and a consultant on kosher supervision — set out on their journey. They arrived at the White House at 7:30 p.m. and waited while Minkowitz made sure nothing had happened to the food and that the Secret Service had not broken any of the kashrut seals.

Once in the White House kitchen, they were surprised at the exceptional cleaning job done by Chef Comerford and her staff — but there nevertheless remained some greasy nooks and crannies that the staff had missed. "We taught them a few new tricks," said the rabbi.

No blowtorches or propane tanks could be used in the kashering process. The job involved boiling water, lots of scrubbing, high heat, aluminum foil and butcher paper, packing tape, and kosher cutting boards. It took about three hours on Monday morning and was interrupted once, when Bush made a surprise visit because she wanted to watch the actual kashering.

Says Taub, "She was beaming and thanked everyone for their hard work. I couldn’t hear what she was saying because I was pouring boiling water on the stainless counters, but when she asked for a photo op, I grabbed my jacket and that’s how we all landed on the front pages of the newspapers.

"Later she came over and thanked me personally for the special effort — and there was no problem about shaking hands. We didn’t. We were told she knew the rules on that, too."

Afterwards, the first lady introduced the rabbi to the president. "He thanked me and told me he’d heard lots of compliments about me and our caterers. I told him that I felt our nation was privileged to have as its president a man who proudly respects his Jewish friends and their customs — and I wished them both a happy new year."

As for the guests who could now take the kashrut in the White House for granted, it was all about the food. Betty’s and Petak’s prepared mountains of goodies and delicacies that, as they say in the business, moved.

The party was held in the East Room and the State Dining Room. To add Chanukah spirit to the room, Rubin says, "We put giant chocolate dreidels on the tables, draped in lime green. We sprinkled the tabletops with silver foil-wrapped Chanukah gelt, and presented our food buffet-style."

First to disappear were more than 1,500 latkes in two flavors — traditional potato and sweet apple latkes, fried up by the boys from Petak’s and served with homemade cinnamon-spiced applesauce. No sour cream here — not even "fake."

Betty’s produced the feather-light sufganiot (filled doughnuts) from jelly to custard to chocolate, and the president clearly enjoyed them, Taub said. Other traditional foods included finger cakes and pastries, smoked salmon, and mini-stuffed cabbage. The pieces de resistance were the paillettes of chateaubriand (eye of the rib) served in white horseradish sauce with homemade onion rings and steamed assorted California vegetables — baby carrots, baby bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, and baby yellow beets in their own steamy juices (no broccoli in the mix). For the fish-eaters, there was wild bass crusted with black and white sesame seeds. Salad was an orange and avocado pomegranate salad with pomegranate vinaigrette.

The president gave his Chanukah speech, a menorah brought from Cleveland was lit, some songs were sung, and — not surprising — a good time was had by all.

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