An hour before midnight on a recent Wednesday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was carefully positioning roasted Brussels sprouts, fresh pomegranate seeds and sauteed portobello chunks on a fluffy sea of quinoa.
Then, aiming her iPad straight down, she began shooting pictures. By dawn, a tempting photo and the recipe would appear on Instagram. By noon, the dish that her husband and two of their three children back home in Florida would never have eaten would be savored by co-workers here, along with a second cook’s offering: also quinoa, but with a Mexican accent.
Since December, 15 Democratic National Committee staffers and Wasserman Schultz, their chairwoman, have nourished one another Mondays through Thursdays when Congress is in session. In the Vegetarian Lunch Club, they strive to share good food, save money on restaurants and maybe drop a few pounds, with each person cooking just twice a month.
This is no ritual communal meal. A late-morning e-mail blast alerts all 16 participants to what’s on the menu for the serve-yourself lunch du jour. Members usually take laden plates back to their desks, although one charter veggie clubber confessed to sneaking out for a roast beef sandwich on a day she’d brought in food.
It began when staffer Amy Kroll told co-workers about the vegan lunch bunch at her previous job, complete with Tumblr and Twitter accounts and a waiting list. She asked to organize one at the DNC, and Wasserman Schultz promptly joined; so did 14 colleagues, who chose less-stringent vegetarian fare over vegan.
Most Americans, at least those who follow increasingly shrill U.S. politics, know the DNC chief as a partisan pit bull, a vocal defender of her president, her party and herself against Republicans of every stripe — and occasionally fellow Democrats.
But to more than 1,400 Instagram followers, she is the ebullient “cleancookingcongresswoman,” a late but devoted arrival to a movement dedicated to eating whole, additive-free foods.
Wasserman Schultz follows a roughly 80-20 ratio of healthful to not-great food, leaning heavily plant-centric and more pescatarian than carnivore. Her longtime breakfast of peanut M&Ms and full-sugar Coke soon gave way to a banana, a Kind bar and a Starbucks light Frappuccino, hold the whipped cream.
Back home near Fort Lauderdale, she picks bananas, litchis, figs, grapefruit and kumquats from her own trees and tends a new garden of herbs and vegetables, including much-maligned okra: “I’ve never cooked it before, and nobody but me will eat it, but I love it and want to try.”
Son Jake, 16, enjoys the mahi-mahi he catches with his father, banker Steve Schultz, and mom’s veggie lasagna. His twin, Rebecca, has the most adventurous palate of the siblings (she would’ve eaten that quinoa-pomegranate-sprouts casserole), while sister Shelby, 11, took a recent break from SpaghettiOs and other beloved kid food to try panko-crusted Buffalo chicken tenders.
“Was I surprised that she started to cook? How about shocked?” asked the lawmaker’s mother, Ann Wasserman, who lives in Florida with her husband, Larry, a short drive from their daughter. As a child, “Debbie never came near the kitchen.” After she was married, “Steve would cook and Debbie would clean up.”
In the 18 months since her move to clean cuisine spawned bounteous homemade Sunday suppers for the extended family, Wasserman has seen “some unidentifiable things that look a little alien. But it’s my duty as a mother: I am going to eat it. Most of it is surprisingly good,” especially the fish, she said.
Wasserman Schultz was 47 when she went mostly clean. Inspired by chef Rocco DiSpirito’s book “The Pound a Day Diet,” and despite having “10 thumbs,” she thought she could follow his recipes. “I wanted to not chop off my fingers or burn myself. I am not that experienced or coordinated, but I don’t like doing things halfway, so I did it.”
With the zeal of a convert (“I love the supermarket now”) and the skills of novice (she recently braced a fat sweet potato on her thigh while peeling it over a garbage can), she began the long march.
“I screen-shot recipes that were posted. I didn’t understand why people pictured their food on Instagram, which I really thought was stupid. But then I wanted to see what people thought of my cooking,” she said. “I scared the crap out of my staff by creating an account without telling them.”
After two months of practice back home and in the Capitol Hill rowhouse she shares with New York Democratic Reps. Kathleen Rice and Carolyn B. Maloney, the cleancookingcongresswoman went public in April 2014, explaining in her first Instagram post:
“I started this journey because I wanted to feel healthier, lose some weight after gaining weight following breast cancer and set an example for my 3 amazing kids (and my hubby who has now decided to eat healthy and can’t believe I’m cooking after 23 years of marriage).”
The Capitol, not her face, serves as her Instagram profile image. She downloaded recipes from food blogs and from other Instagram posters and pored over Clean Eating and Cooking Light magazines.
That maiden post featured the quinoa melange from Instagram’s deliciouslyella, because it was nutritious and “pretty.” She has learned an important principle of Instagram: Luscious food photos draw more “likes” than boring ones. A friend, appalled by her use of the family’s funky dishes on Instagram, bought her stylish white Ikea plates in trendy shapes for better visuals.
Unlike Twitter, which the combative Wasserman Schultz deemed full of “haters,” Instagram is her warm and happy place, free of snark from other lawmakers, pundits, political hacks, voters and donors. When she rhapsodized about apple slices topped with toasted pecans and Skippy chocolate peanut butter (her personal culinary “crack”), or rejoiced at finally fitting back into a size 2 skirt last worn before her 2007 breast cancer diagnosis, members of her food “community” shared her pleasure.
“My husband says I only cook now so I can put things on Instagram,” she said. “That is not true.”
She recently began to evangelize to colleagues about her edible epiphany. On June 2, she hosted 15 Democratic congresswomen at the home of Rep. Chellie Pingree (Maine), a friend, farmer and fellow clean eater. The speaker was Robyn Webb, an Alexandria nutritionist and cookbook author who taught the group how to chop onions and basil, then supervised as they stuffed red peppers with farro and pesto, made salad with endive and oranges, and baked Tuscan biscotti.
“It was a blast,” said Webb. “Debbie is so interested that she feels she has to share her passion with everyone.”
It was not always thus. Since her 20s, Wasserman Schultz has commuted to work from South Florida, first to Tallahassee as a political aide, then state representative and then senator before entering Congress in 2005. Her husband was in charge of family meals.
Now, when Wasserman Schultz is in Washington, “I don’t really cook during the week,” Steve Schultz said. “We just kind of eat grilled cheese, mac and cheese, pasta, tuna, eggs, frozen foods.” Calling himself a “full-strength food” lover, he dutifully tastes everything she makes, gently suggesting that some things he considers duds be ditched: “I am not one of those quinoa people.”
Wasserman Schultz says she is in this for the long haul. After stocking pantries in both homes virtually from scratch, she could still use a good knife, decent can opener and some dish towels for her late-night “kitchen therapy” in Washington. “People used to ask what I did for fun, and I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t do anything for myself that I enjoyed. Now I do, and I’m choosing to do it at 11 o’clock at night.” She welcomes the intense concentration of measuring spices in tiny spoons or eviscerating a pomegranate, a break from plotting ways to ambush Republicans or motivate Democrats.
Gradually, she’s learning to improvise. A recipe for bread spiked with Bailey’s Irish Cream for an earlier DNC lunch listed several items she did not have, including yeast, a bread machine and the proper flour. So she mixed together the last of her whole-wheat, coconut and tapioca flours, added baking powder as the rising agent and popped the loaf into a conventional oven. (The result was tasty, if dry.)
Citing her longtime pet issues of child nutrition, food security and maternal health, Wasserman Schultz has a few new dreams: “I have kind of fantasized about going to cooking school, writing a book, something that would combine politics and cooking.” She says she even has a catchy working title, but she won’t reveal it.
After the success of her Democratic women’s cookathon, she’s now mulling a bipartisan fete. “I would have to be careful,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be accused of attempting to poison Republicans.”