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Tasting America: Inaugural Food Tents Promise Regional Specialties

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 15 1997; Page E01

What would you do if you had to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry people at a two-day party in January? Outdoors. In who knows what kind of weather.

That, more or less, was the problem facing Presidential Inaugural Committee members as they planned next weekend's blowout festivities on the Mall.

Celebrants from all over America will be there. Some high rollers, some just plain folks, many of immigrant backgrounds, many more with children. They'll pay their own way, of course, but they want their meals fast, affordable, familiar, delicious.

So for four weeks a small band of festival planners has been talking to chefs and caterers across the country in an effort to bring just that to the Mall. And by next weekend, 38 vendors from eight states will serve a menu that ranges from fried green tomatoes to barbecued tofu; from turkey sandwiches to Indian tacos; from pad thai to saffron and scallop soup; from chicken and sausage jambalaya to chicken teriyaki. Not to mention hamburgers and hot dogs and pizza and collard greens and hot chocolate and soft-frozen lemonade and even a $6 blue-plate special (meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, green beans and mashed potatoes).

"We want to give people a true cross section of great American food," says Michael Gordon, spokesman for the Mall events.

This weekend's food possibilities will be organized in two large food tents dubbed American Kitchen pavilions, each to be divided into 10-by-10-foot stands of purveyors as well known as the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods and as product-specific as Dell's soft-frozen lemonade out of Marietta, Ga. Here are a few of the more idiosyncratic offerings, and their chefs:

India By Way of Memphis
"A woman of the '90s," is how Raji Jallepalli describes herself. Known for a unique cross-cultural fusion of French and Indian cuisine at her restaurant Raji in Memphis, the 46-year-old chef was a medical technician when she moved to the U.S. in 1971 with her former husband, a physician. At that point, running a restaurant wasn't the future she envisioned.

But her Indian childhood -- her aristocratic family entertained regularly, had two cooks and made frequent trips to Europe -- had given her an international culinary sophistication. And over the years she began to dream of having a small restaurant that showed off her unique approach to cooking.

"I had this vision about food that hadn't been done anywhere else," she says. "Indian food has a lot to offer in terms of bouquets, but a handful of spices can be a little too overwhelming. I look at spices as something subtle and sublime." So she emulsifies them in oils or toasts them and soaks them in crushed ice to become a kind of stock.

The reputation of her restaurant and the success of her food on the Mall during the last inauguration got her the return invitation. This time she'll be serving a scallop and saffron soup, salmon with dill and turmeric, and spiced pork tenderloin with cranberry coulis. "In a big tent, I have to appeal to people's sensory perceptions," she says.

For all her achievements, Jallepalli has had trouble convincing her mother that running a restaurant is a respectable occupation for a woman. "I'm not only divorced from a doctor husband," she says, "I ended up as a cook!"

It took being asked to chef at the Indian Embassy in Paris last year to begin to make her mother proud. But strutting her stuff at the inauguration for the second time isn't bad either.

"How often do you get an honor like this?" she says.

Indian By Way of Carolina
Government employees in their day jobs, W. J. Strickland and his wife, Barbara, also run Dakota's American Indian Food, a part-time catering business specializing in the native American dishes they grew up with. Lumbee Indians from North Carolina, about 20 years ago the Stricklands moved to D.C., where new friends were treated to their brand of home-style cooking. "If you're a guest in our home, sharing a meal is part of our tradition," says W. J. Strickland, who handles all the outdoor grill work.

One of those guests, the late Smithsonian Folklife Festival honcho Ralph Rinzler, was impressed by what he ate, and asked Strickland to be a vendor at the annual festival. Strickland started with North Carolina barbecue, and was soon asked to expand his menu to include basic native American foods. His buffalo burgers, fry bread and Indian tacos were a hit, and that's the menu the couple will offer on the Mall.

At home the Stricklands eat "normal everyday food," but their cooking also reflects their origins -- it's a little heavier on meat than is currently fashionable. But that's not particularly surprising. They grew up eating pork and beef and chicken and wild game like venison, squirrel and rabbit -- "whatever my papa could hunt and find," says Barbara Strickland, "even though today those things are delicacies."

W. J. Strickland's family raised all their food on their own farm. And a couple of times a year, they would slaughter the hogs or heifers that provided year-round protein. Chickens went from the yard to the kitchen more frequently. They roasted and stewed and fried the meats, and served them with traditional staples made from corn or flour.

Strickland, a program specialist with the American Indians branch of Head Start, caters lots of special events these days. And he's often asked if he'd consider giving up his job to run a restaurant or a full-time catering operation -- a daunting and, to his mind, expensive dream. "I've thought of it," he says. "I love to cook. And as far as I know we're one of the few that reside in the area that provide Native American foods."

In Our Own Back Yard
The food at the Third And Eats stand could be found on many typical contemporary lunch menus: grilled chicken Caesar salads, fresh roast turkey sandwiches and black bean burritos. But the caterers are anything but typical: Third And Eats is a nonprofit restaurant and catering training program for the homeless and unemployed.

The organization runs two locations: the original eatery at 3rd and E streets NW and a newer facility diagonally across the street in the U.S. Tax Court building. That expansion two years ago allowed the group to enlarge its program and gave it a larger, more professional kitchen and the opportunity to handle more catering. That rapidly growing part of their business now accounts for about 25 percent of overall sales.

The operation is run by Nathan Shirley and Will Dosher, regulars at the annual Taste of D.C. food festival, and participants at the inaugural Mall event.

A Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, Dosher came to cooking from Wall Street out of a desire to run his own business. From about 5:45 each morning until 3:30 in the afternoon, Dosher steers the trainees through the rigors of basic professional culinary training. By the time they finish, they're expected to be able to handle prep-cook duties for a restaurant or catering. "When we do an event, we want our clients to feel we're as professional as any caterer in town," says Dosher.

After work, Dosher generally works out before heading home to, what else, make dinner. He obviously takes to the profession naturally. "I've been married for 20 years, and my wife's never cooked," he says. "I've always enjoyed it."

Politically Correct Cajun
Louisianan John Ed Laborde may be the only caterer on the Mall next week who also holds a political office. For two years, he's been the (part-time) mayor of Marksville, La., a town of about 5,800 people in the central part of the state.

A regular at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Laborde scoffs at competitors with a less authentic pedigree. "Some people will profess to be Cajun," he says. So, like many of the purveyors, he's bringing all his very authentic ingredients with him. "In Louisiana it's important to us that we put on a good show," he says.

His dishes: crawfish etouffe, seafood gumbo and crawfish bread. The last is his own invention. "You saute crawfish tails in onions and seasoning, mix them with grated cheese and roll them into homemade yeast dough and bake it," he explains. "It's good to carry around."

With a degree in psychology from Louisiana State University, Laborde grew up in a rural farming community "where lots of things revolve around food." He learned to cook, proverbially, at his mother's knee. But his entry into the food business about 10 years ago evolved out of his crawfish bread creation, which he made in his apartment and gave away to friends. Their reactions, plus market research, convinced him he could make a living at catering, so he quit his job, borrowed some money and changed his vocational direction.

A Democrat (his wife is a Republican), Laborde figures the catering business can only help his fledgling political career. "I get to go to all the functions," he says. "And since I'm bringing the food, I make people happy."

Attendees at this weekend's festivities on the Mall can purchase food and drink tickets in 50-cent increments at stands just outside the American Kitchen tents. Prices range from $2 to $6. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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