When you mention to anyone outside Washington that people here host convention watch parties, the immediate response is, inevitably, silence. And then, “Really?”
It should not be surprising that we in the nation’s capital are political junkies. Our children are raised on C-SPAN, and our dogs sport collars patterned with tiny donkeys or elephants. Some people gather together every four years to watch the Summer Olympics, but we recycle our July Fourth bunting and invite friends over to watch the televised conventions in all their patriotic glory.
Taking a page from similar parties for Super Bowl watching, we look to serve foods that are local to the host towns. With the Republic National Convention set for July 18-21 in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention taking place July 25-28 in Philadelphia, there’s no shortage of flavor to choose from. Pierogis to pretzels, we’re game.
Cleveland, which boasts a large Polish population, is where you’ll find a hefty sandwich of griddled kielbasa sausage on a hoagie roll, topped with coleslaw and french fries. It’s called the Polish Boy, and it’s often served with barbecue sauce. Clevelander and “The Chew” co-host Michael Symon prefers to use ShaSha Sauce, a mustardy banana pepper relish from a longtime family recipe named for his mother-in-law.
Philadelphians love their liquid refreshments, as soda pop, ice cream soda and the first commercially sold root beer — Hires — are all purported to have originated there. Any Philly-themed party naturally cries out for a DIY soda bar, at the very least.
Fish fries are an important part of the Cleveland food landscape, according to chef and Cleveland local Matt Fish. “We’ve got a huge Catholic population,” he says. “I can remember going with my grandparents to a fish fry every Friday night.”
As the owner of Melt Bar & Grilled, a chain of seven restaurants with a focus on grilled cheese, Fish wanted to re-create the fried fish sandwiches he loved as a kid, featuring Great Lakes catches such as walleye and perch. He came up with the Lake Erie Monster, a mash-up of grilled cheese and batter-fried fillets slathered with a jalapeño-spiked tartar sauce. “I wanted to step it up a notch,” says Fish. “It really resonates with Clevelanders.”
For Philadelphia native Coleen Hill, a food blogger and graphic designer who will be volunteering at the Dems’ convention, her city’s cuisine has its own stories to tell. Consider the ubiquitous Philly cheesesteak sandwich: “To me, it represents Philly’s attitude,” she says. “It’s not a healthy food, and we don’t care.”
But ask her what food is distinctively Philadelphia, and Hill will immediately point to the tomato pie, puffy and pizzalike, that routinely turns up at parties because it’s served at room temperature and can be made in advance. “Philadelphia Tomato Pie is special, because it’s a truly unique-to-Philadelphia food,” she says. “Even just 40 miles north of Philadelphia, ‘tomato pie’ means something completely different. On special occasions, like Super Bowl Sunday, you’d better order ahead, because you won’t be able to get it on the day of.”
Forget the gridiron routine. This year’s political conventions will probably provide a lot more excitement. They deserve a taste of something beyond wings and beer.
Hartke is a food writer and editor in Washington. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.