The event was a huge deal for the Texas cowboy who started his career in 1973 as a chuck wagon cook for hungry ranch hands. In 1983, he had opened Perini Ranch Steakhouse, which developed a reputation for excellence far beyond Buffalo Gap, a town of about 400 outside Abilene. Academy Award-winner Robert Duvall had found his way to the remote restaurant, as had Billy Bob Thornton, who told Men’s Journal that Perini’s smoked brisket was the best he ever ate.
Perini’s culinary fame eventually reached the Texas governor’s mansion, where he regularly catered barbecues for George W. Bush. “When he ran for president, I remember fantasizing about cooking at the White House,” recalls Perini.
In May 2001, he got his chance when President Bush asked Perini to cater the 2001 Congressional Picnic in the fall. The gala would be a Texas-themed, and Texas-sized, party that would feature country music’s Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel.
In June, Perini arrived in Washington to work out details with White House chefs. “I told them we were going to have bread pudding, green chile hominy, Southern green beans and beef tenderloin,” Perini, 68, recalls. “And the chef from the White House said, ‘You’re in Washington, and you have to cook chicken.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not serving chicken.’
“The room got real quiet. ‘When you are serving a Texas chuck wagon meal, you serve beef.’ I said, ‘If you want another meat, I’ll do catfish.’”
After some discussion, and a later conversation with the president himself, the entrees were set: mesquite-smoked peppered tenderloin and fried catfish.
Perini was instructed to keep mum about the event. He didn’t even tell the employees he would bring to Washington until the last minute. The cowboys and restaurant employees who would join him to prepare the food and serve it were told that the two trucks and two trailers of mesquite wood, handmade barbecue pits and chuck wagons were not going to Austin, as he had said as a cover story, but to Washington.
After settling into the Madison hotel on Sunday, Sept. 9, he held a conference with his crew. “I told the cowboys, ‘When you get into your rooms you’re going to see these little refrigerators. They’re mini-bars. Don’t get into them.’
“These were cowboys,” he explains. “They’d see beer and whiskey and candy bars — they’d think they’d died and gone to heaven.”
The next day, Perini and his crew worked with White House staff to prepare food and set up 160 picnic tables on the South Lawn for the 1,400 invited guests, which included all representatives and senators, the president and vice president, and everyone’s families. In other words, pretty much every elected official in town.
That night, Perini was so nervous about his big day that he slept poorly and woke up early. While his wife, Lisa, dressed, he watched CNN. “They said a small plane had hit the tower,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Something’s gone wrong. How could a small plane fly into the tower?’ I figured it was human error or a [malfunctioning] radar system or something.
“And then around nine, I witnessed the second plane fly into the tower. It was horrifying. When you see that happen, your stomach just drops. I just kept wondering, what was wrong? Then they started talking about terrorism. I turned to Lisa and said, ‘We’re not going to cater any party tonight.’
“I opened the [hotel room] windows, and it was just a beautiful day, just a beautiful blue day. But there were sirens, and I could smell the smoke from the Pentagon [which had been struck by a third plane] and there were Humvees.
“The only day that compared to this was the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I was in Dallas that day, and you heard sirens and everything, and it was” — his voice catches — “a very emotional day.”
“An Abilene radio station called, and I was trying to be tough and here my voice was cracking. Here, I was trying to be tough and…” His voice catches again.
“The White House called that afternoon and asked what should we do with the food. I said, ‘What do you want to do with it?’ They said, ‘Can we give the food to the firefighters [at the Pentagon]?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ I said, ‘I have the mesquite, and we can fire up the pits.’
“And they said, ‘No, no, Tom. We can’t have any smoke drifting up from the White House. And we also can’t do anything that would make anyone think we’re doing something festive.’”
The next day, at noon, he and four others were packing up the equipment still on the White House grounds.
“I was standing on the South Lawn and heard a whistle and my name was called out, and I looked up and I saw the president approaching me,” he recalls. “There’s a protocol involved. You’re not supposed to approach the president. You’re supposed to wait and let him approach you. But we walked right toward him. We probably made some snipers very nervous. We walked toward each other.
“The president said, ‘I’m sorry you couldn’t cater your party.” I said, ‘Oh, Mr. President, don’t worry about that. You have a lot more to worry about.’ And then he said, ‘I’m not going to let these people change the way we live our lives.’
“But, of course, as you know, our lives changed forever,” Perini says. “From airlines to whatever.”
Perini reflects on the moment.
“I think, and this is just me saying this, but I think he looked out his windows in the White House and he saw five guys with cowboy hats on the lawn and I think he came out to get his thoughts together.”
Before walking back to the White House, Perini says that Bush told him, “We will do this party again.”
As Bush walked away, one of Perini’s employees called out to him. “We’ll be praying for you, Mr. President,” Perini recalls the employee’s words.
“The president stopped and turned around,” Perini continues, “and said, ‘Thank you. I need that.’ Then he walked back into the White House.”
The following year, the White House resumed the tradition of the Congressional Picnic. Perini catered it..
On the 10th anniversary this Sunday, Perini doesn’t plan on doing anything special. “We’re just going to stop and reflect and think about how proud we are to be Americans.”