No one knows the impact of the presidential palate on food trends better than Herman G. Rowland, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Herman Goelitz Candy Co.
Rowland, whose firm produces an upscale version of jelly beans called Jelly Belly, remembers being deluged with orders following reports in 1981 that President Reagan enjoys snacking on the sugary confection. Almost overnight, sales of Jelly Belly jelly beans shot up three-fold, and new orders were backlogged 72 weeks. "It was total havoc," Rowland recalls, adding that the resulting publicity gave his candy international recognition.
The presidential election may be months away, but the major party conventions are just around the corner, beginning with the Democratic convention, which opens Monday in Atlanta. Already, inquiring minds want to know the effect a Dukakis victory might have -- not just on foreign policy or budgets or defense -- but rather, on what the American electorate might look forward to eating in the next administration.
If a recent survey of Greek importers, restaurateurs and others is any indication, that signature Greek pastry known as baklava -- which Dukakis is known to sometimes carry with him on campaign flights -- isn't exactly a front runner. But the Democratic presidential candidate's emergence as a White House contender appears to be sparking as many appetites as debates.
"Dukakis' name is on television and in the newspaper every day," says James Magafan of Alpha Foods, a Landover wholesale concern that specializes in Italian, Greek and Syrian foodstuffs. "I do believe he has created some kind of question in the minds of the people." In the last six months, according to Magafan, the volume of gyros, souvlaki and baklava his company sells has tripled. "People want to know what Greek food is about," he explains.
"Business is very good," agrees Constantine Poulos, vice president of the International Cheese Company in Hinesburg, Vt., the largest domestic producer of feta cheese in the United States. While he notes that Greek food items have become increasingly popular in the past seven years, he adds that there's also "a strong ethnic pride right now."
Even the most casual diner can't help but sense the mood. Recently, while eating in a local Greek restaurant, Achilles Paparsenos, press spokesman for the Greek embassy, overheard one departing diner say to another, " 'Ah, that's the place Dukakis will be eating.' " The official says that "because of the Dukakis candidacy, all things Greek are more in fashion." And even those who don't see much of a trend, like Washington attorney Dimitri Mallios, who represents a handful of Greek restaurants, concede that "the places are busy."
Just ask the Greek restaurateurs. "I see a lot of new faces," reports Gabriel Kavadias of Taverna the Greek Islands, a restaurant on Capitol Hill. Like his competitors, Kavadias says he isn't certain whether the increase in patronage is due to the influx of tourists or the Dukakis campaign, although he attributes the presence of at least a few newcomers to the prominent display of a "Dukakis For President" sign in the front window of his restaurant. "Mike's a friend," claims Kavadias, adding that the governor hasn't dropped in for several years. Is he planning on adding any Greek specials in anticipation of his friend's possible election? Kavadias pauses. "Not yet. I'm supporting Mike, but Capitol Hill is all kinds of people -- Democrats, Republicans." Nonetheless, the restaurateur promises, "I'm going to find out what he likes."
Alekos Marounpas, owner of the popular Alekos restaurant in Dupont Circle, says the curiosity of some diners steers them to ordering wines from Dukakis family region. "Let's try the food of our next president," he says he hears patrons say.
"Three years ago," reports Despina Skenderis, who along with her family operates Zorba's eatery and Skenderis Market, "patrons were talking about terrorism. Now it's the elections. Everything so far is positive." Her husband, Dino, says he is bombarded with questions from his customers, frequently being asked, "You for Dukakis? You support Dukakis?" Beyond the idea that Dukakis might have a beneficial influence on his already fruitful food businesses, Skenderis is also impressed with the story of a first-generation Greek making his mark on the political scene. After all, as students, Skenderis and his wife, who also works as a reporter/announcer for the Greek division of Voice of America, started a grocery and gift operation on $165.
Louis Summar of Acropolis Food Market, whose father, a second-generation Greek, started the city's oldest Greek food shop in 1948, reports that the Willard restaurant sent over for baklava for a reception celebrating Greek Independence Day earlier this spring, and more recently, the Senate cafeteria inquired about the availability of spanokopita and tiropita.
Of course, one doesn't have to own a Greek restaurant or food shop to promote the virtues of Greek cuisine. Malcolm McConnell, who, along with his wife Carol wrote "The Mediterranean Diet" (W.W. Norton & Co., 1987), likes to point out the health benefits of the traditional Greek diet of seafood, whole grains and dark green vegetables, a good source of beta-carotene, which is believed to offer protection against many cancers. In addition, according to the authors, up to 75 percent of the diet's calories may come from cereals and olive oil, a monounsaturated fat that promotes cardiovascular health. McConnell traces much of the interest in Greek foods to the American consumer's heightened interest in olive oil, particularly in the past five years.
"Looks like we're going to have souvlaki in the White House," predicts the author, although "I'd prefer grilled mullet fish in olive oil," he quickly adds, laughing.
Souvlaki and Dukakis in the White House? Rowland, a staunch Republican who sends an estimated 200 to 400 pounds of Jelly Belly jelly beans to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue each month, is of another opinion. Asked if he would continue to send his product to the next president, Rowland quickly made obvious his choice in a Dukakis-Bush race by responding, "He already has them, and has since '81."
Greek cooking instructor Eva Poulos of Potomac reports that the number of students taking her classes in traditional Greek cuisine has doubled in the past year. Here is a trio of dishes from her repertoire:
SPANOKOPITA (Spinach Feta Triangles) (Makes about 90 small appetizers)
2 (10-ounce) boxes frozen chopped spinach
1 1/2 cups butter plus 2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup olive oil
3 scallions, chopped fine
1 small yellow onion, chopped fine
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped fine
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped fine
1/2 pound feta cheese
1 pound ricotta cheese
4 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup grated romano cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, well beaten
16-ounce package prepared phyllo dough (Poulos suggests Apollo brand)
Boil frozen spinach in salted water for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and drain in colander for 2 hours. In a small frying pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter with 1/4 cup olive oil and add scallions, yellow onion, dill and parsley and saute' until golden brown.
In a large mixing bowl, combine crumbled feta, ricotta, cream cheese, romano and salt and add well drained spinach, onion mixture and the eggs. Mix well. Melt 1 1/2 cups butter in a small sauce pan. Place 2 phyllo pastry sheets horizontally and cut into 6 strips. Brush top phyllo with melted butter. Place 1 tablespoon spinach mixture at one end of each strip, folding strip diagonally until triangles are formed. Brush tops with melted butter, and place on an ungreased baking pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden. Serve warm as an appetizer.
Note: To freeze, place unbaked buttered triangles in a covered plastic container, separating layers with waxed paper, and place in freezer. When ready to serve, place frozen triangles on an ungreased pan and bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
BAKED SHRIMP WITH FETA CHEESE (6 servings)
Juice of 1 lemon
2 pounds medium-sized fresh raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 medium-sized yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 bunch scallions, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup olive oil
14 1/2-ounce can whole Italian pear-shaped tomatoes (crushed)
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 pound feta cheese, cut in 1/2-inch squares
Pour lemon juice over cleaned shrimp in bowl and let stand while preparing sauce. In a large frying pan, saute' onions, garlic and parsley in olive oil. Add crushed whole tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, oregano and 1/2 cup water. Bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover pan and simmer for about 30 minutes; adding more water if necessary for a creamy sauce.
Meanwhile, in another frying pan, saute' shrimp in butter until they are pink. Add tomato sauce mixture and combine with shrimp. Spoon shrimp and sauce into buttered baking dish or individual casserole dishes and scatter feta cheese over the top. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 15 minutes or until feta starts to melt. To serve, remove the shrimp carefully with a spatula so that the melted feta over them stays intact. Serve with rice pilaf and French or Greek bread.
POUTINGA (Custard Cake with Syrup) (35 dessert servings)
FOR THE CUSTARD CAKE:
1 quart milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup sugar
Grated rind of 1 lemon
3/4 cup quick cooking (not instant) cream of wheat cereal
6 extra-large eggs, room temperature
FOR THE SYRUP:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
Juice of 1/2 lemon
To make the cake: In a deep, 4-quart saucepan, combine milk, vanilla, butter, sugar and lemon rind and cook until lukewarm. Do not boil. Slowly add cream of wheat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to avoid lumping. Continue cooking on slow boil for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and set aside to cool until warm to the touch. Beat eggs until light and frothy. Slowly add eggs to warm cream of wheat mixture, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until well blended and mixture is free of lumps.
Butter bottom and sides of a 14-by-10-by-2 1/2-inch baking pan and pour custard in and spread evenly. Preheat oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees. Bake for 1 hour or until golden brown.
To make the syrup: Combine all ingredients in a medium size saucepan and bring to boil and continue boiling for 3 more minutes only. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Remove cake from oven and immediately pour cool syrup over top. Let set for at least 20 minutes before cutting and serving. Cut in diamond shapes.
These recipes are part of a copyrighted cookbook being prepared for publication by Eva Poulos and Evelyn Varoutsos.