The issue on the table was "What Are the Lessons for U.S. Policymakers?" concerning China's bid to buy the energy company Unocal, but Anthony Sciasia's attention was focused on a silver platter piled with soft-baked chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies. "Cookies are the reason I come to AEI," he said unabashedly.
The 23-year-old intern at the Delegation of the European Commission was referring to the American Enterprise Institute in downtown Washington, where he and about 100 other guests had come to hear a panel of scholars discuss public policy. At this particular morning session, it seemed that Sciasia and a few others near the food table were just as eager to debate which of Washington's think tanks have the best gooey sweets and the best food overall.
Washington insiders know that think tanks offer a full plate of ongoing daily, weekly and monthly briefings and meetings, often held at mealtimes. Some of those who attend the sessions like to analyze the food that's served in relation to the particular brand of thinking. Is the Cato Institute more individualistic, the Heritage Foundation more traditional?
"There is no direct correlation, in my opinion," says Jim Gorski, a senior program analyst at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in Alexandria and a self-proclaimed think tank junkie. "What would 'conservative' cuisine consist of? Ribs and grits? Plain ol' American cooking? I doubt it.
"Think tanks see themselves as catering to the sophisticated, the well-educated, those who appreciate good wine and good food . . . . I don't think the chefs dream about cooking for liberals or conservatives. They cater to a sophisticated palate."
Veronique Rodman, director of public relations at AEI, says, "There's a purpose to our dining. Dining rooms become intellectual centers, places where interns can sit with former U.N. ambassadors."
Intern Sciasia says he's "not sure if there is a connection between ideology and food." His research, though, shows that "the more moderate or liberal places seem more likely to offer fresh fruit -- probably bought from Whole Foods or a farmers market, no doubt."
AEI and the nearby Brookings Institution both have in-house kitchens. Sciasia's favorite cookies were baked by Tejere Jovi, the head chef at AEI for 14 years. Jovi travels to a different country each year to take cooking classes that have helped to diversify his AEI menus. "I cook everything," he says. "Food here is never boring."
Gorski's favorite AEI dinner is beef tips over rice. A more exotic-sounding summer dinner menu there featured Thai-style sauteed julienne of muscovy duck breast with baby bok choy, straw mushrooms, Thai long beans, green chili and sweet basil, served with basmati rice.
Brookings, one of Washington's oldest and most prominently liberal think tanks, supplements its own cooking with Sodexho catering. The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute uses Catering by Windows; the Institute for International Economics offers enormous buffets. The conservative Heritage Foundation offers sandwiches from Subway at almost all of its public events (in late July, turkey on honey wheat and roast beef on Italian bread accompanied "Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran" and "We Hold These Truths: Politics, War, and National Identity"); and the Center for American Progress, a smaller and relatively new nonpartisan institute near McPherson Square, brings in food from California Grill and the Juice Joint Cafe.
Anna Soellner, the center's director of outreach and special events, serves pizza from Armand's and Papa John's at a monthly film series known as "Reel Progress." She says she's well aware that the food at think tank events is a draw. "I once had a guy come to a conference and stuff our food and drinks in his backpack," she says.
Derek Hunter, a research associate in public health policy at Heritage, has observed a distinct group of familiar faces. He says there's one man he sees at every event he attends. "I don't know how he does it. He knows about every event in town," Hunter says.
"You see a lot of repeat 'customers,' " Gorski says. "Seventy percent of people who attend are like nomads, drifting from one think tank to the other."
Brookings hosts 15 to 20 public events with food each week. Conferences held by various departments such as its Center for Public Policy and Education often request themed spreads along Italian, Latino, pan-Asian and Mediterranean lines. On occasion, a department will even bring in a sushi chef. The Saban Center for Middle East Policy will frequently offer tandoori chicken, curry and samosas.
At the World Resources Institute, a downtown think tank that studies environmental issues, the food is definitely served with a message: eco-friendliness. Its biodegradable dishes and cutlery are made out of sugar cane, wheat or corn. And Oretta Tarkhani, the institute's conference services director, checks the National Audubon Society's living fish guide to make sure she's serving sustainable seafood.
"I try to serve organic vegetables whenever possible," Tarkhani says. "If [they're] unavailable, vegetables should be locally produced. The closer the food source, the less mileage it covers, which means less pollution."
Some of the institute's upscale dinners are prepared by BasiKneads caterers and have featured maki canapes (flat bread covered with seasoned fish) and smoked salmon with avocado, appetizers of asparagus bundles and orange salad with tarragon-buttermilk dressing, and entrees of striped bass in an agrodolce (sweet and sour) sauce, served with roasted fennel and nutmeg-scented mashed potatoes.
At the Center for Strategic and International and Studies on K Street NW, conference director Janet Granger uses food to break cultural stereotypes. "There's a myth that Asians don't eat dairy," Granger says. "Not true." At conferences whose attendees are predominantly Asian, the cheesecake is the first to go, she says.
Granger also makes special accommodations. Because beef is so expensive in Japan, for instance, steaks are usually provided at dinners with Japanese clients, she says.
Think tank denizen Gorski is not sure if the food speaks directly to the policy being espoused at all think tanks, of course, but he does think it creates an atmosphere of prestige, and even comfort.
"There's always food at think tanks," he says. "People take it for granted. But if it wasn't there, people would notice."
Laurie Burkitt, an aide for the Editorial Page staff and connoisseur of think tank cookies, was a research assistant in the Asian Studies Department at AEI from 2002 to 2003. She last wrote for Food about okra.