Jill Biden knows there’s more to a meal than food. The wife of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden prioritizes a nicely set table: “Dinner isn’t dinner without candles,” she wrote in her 2019 memoir, describing dinners she organized for wounded military members from Walter Reed hospital that included linens as well as comfort food such as chili and cornbread or a traditional Thanksgiving spread.
What is on the plate — Biden family favorites include pasta or chicken pot pie — is usually secondary to the point of sitting down together. “Food,” she wrote, “is love.”
The metaphor was established early in her life, over doubled-up Sunday dinners, one with each set of grandparents — and eventually one she brought to her own family. After she married Joe, then a widowed senator who commuted to Washington, she prepared dinner for his two young sons every night, creating a ritual that was about more than sustenance. “Dinner became a tradition and a hub for our family,” she wrote. “Just as it had been for mine, and it was a constant the boys could depend upon.”
With the election just two weeks away, it’s become sport to imagine how the former vice president and second lady might change things up at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Interviews with people who have fed, served and hosted them over the years paint a picture of a couple whose tastes run middle American and somewhat healthy, thanks to Jill.
Both share a taste for red-sauced pasta, Joe in particular (angel hair is a favorite); he also regularly consumes peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. She has shared recipes for chicken Parmesan and chicken tenders. “He’s pretty much a basic eater,” she told Parade magazine of her husband.
Jill’s idea of a splurge is a martini and french fries, a guilty pleasure she shares with Michelle Obama. Joe, who doesn’t drink, famously devours ice cream cones. Of his teetotaling, he told the New York Times in 2008 that “there are enough alcoholics in my family.”
Such attention to matters of the table regarding a potential first couple aren’t just idle gawking. If we are what we eat, to paraphrase the French writer Brillat-Savarin, the former vice president is the very guy he’s presented to the country on the campaign trail: “very Joe-from-Scranton,” says Chris Freeman, a former Washington caterer who frequently worked at the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory. Biden is “a man of the people, and his taste in food reflects that proletarian approach,” he says.
The proof could be found in the couple’s pantry and refrigerator, stocked with staples familiar to shoppers of suburban grocery stores, Freeman says, including peanut butter and grape jelly, sliced deli cheese, eggs and Haagen-Dazs ice cream. The list of foods the Bidens asked to keep on hand also indicated more health-conscious eating, including apples, red grapes, both Diet Coke and Coke Zero (the former vice president’s pick), Special K cereal and low-fat yogurt.
The couple’s kitchen dynamic is traditional, too: Jill is the cook in the family, she has said. Joe’s only cooking feat is pasta with a jarred sauce, she said during an appearance on the “Rachael Ray Show.” By her account, she enjoys it, especially with her family around, music on and a glass of wine by the stove.
Food has long been a powerful tool for politicians to shape their public personas. For Joe Biden, an ice cream obsession is a relatable one — and it offers chances for the candidate to connect with voters, with a side of humor.
Last week, Biden’s Twitter account featured a short video of the candidate double-fisting a Dairy Queen order. In it, he playfully flips over an open-top Blizzard shake, as if to demonstrate its thickness. And ahead of the presidential debate, he took a jibe at President Trump’s baseless accusation that he was taking performance-enhancing drugs by tweeting a picture of his booster of choice: a pint of peanut butter and chocolate from Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream.
This love for a frozen treat is genuine, says Scott Mulhauser, a Democratic consultant who was Biden’s deputy chief of staff during his 2012 vice-presidential campaign. And indulging it is an opportunity, too.
“From Dairy Queens to local ice cream parlors, stopping for a scoop is not only a terrific way to cap off long days of campaigning, it’s also a great way for him to embrace iconic brands and beloved small businesses across the country,” Mulhauser says.
For Washington restaurateurs, interest in the dining habits of the inhabitants of the White House isn’t abstract. The Obamas were known for visiting the city’s hottest eateries as a couple, and the former first lady frequently dined out with friends. By contrast, the Trumps’ only known foray outside the confines of the White House has been to the restaurant in the hotel that bears his name.
During the Bidens’ tenure in Washington — for the decades before he was vice president, he commuted from the Senate back to Delaware — they were somewhere in between those poles. Joe Biden dropped by, cameras in tow, when Capriotti’s, the Delaware-based sandwich chain, opened a D.C. location. “This is going to settle, once and for all, the best sandwich in America is out of Wilmington, Delaware,” he told reporters.
The couple, accompanied by one of their granddaughters, were spotted at Le Diplomate, the white-hot French bistro owned by the Philadelphia-based Starr Restaurant group. (The then-veep ordered the cheeseburger.) And he was a regular at casual pizza spot Pete’s Apizza, where he was seen picking up a to-go pie or ordering the spaghetti Pomodoro.
Ashok Bajaj, the owner of power-dining spots around the city who has watched administrations come and go (and eat) for three decades, says the Bidens could bring some “positive energy” to the dining scene. Democratic presidents, he notes, tend to bring young people into the administration who will often take cues from the boss. “Anytime the president goes out, lots of staff come afterward,” he says.
In Delaware, proprietors of the spots the couple frequent know them as good tippers and gracious guests. On pre-pandemic weekends, Joe could be spotted having breakfast with his grandchildren at the cafe in Janssen’s Fine Foods in Greenville, an upscale market where the family has shopped for decades. Co-owner Paula Janssen says he typically buys flowers there for his wife. Scott Stein, co-owner of Bardea Food & Drink in Wilmington, says the Bidens have visited several times since it opened in 2018. Joe — who ordered an off-menu spaghetti and meatballs when he took his wife there for her birthday — has joked with the staff, telling chef Antimo DiMeo that if he had his looks, “I’d be a shoo-in for president.” Jill seems to be the more mindful eater, ordering spicy branzino for the same dinner out.
How the Bidens might entertain in the White House is also a matter of public interest. In the near term, covid-19 will likely put the brakes on almost all of the socializing that happens there. The Biden campaign has made virtual events and social distancing the norm, and most observers expect that to continue if he wins the presidency.
The traditional Easter Egg Roll, where dozens of children play games on the South Lawn, will likely be nixed, at least in its traditional form. St. Patrick’s Day, usually filled with pomp and circumstance with a visit from the taoiseach, a lunch and reception — and one Biden would typically relish, given his Irish ancestry — will doubtless look very different.
But when socializing can safely resume, for clues on what the Bidens’ official hosting might look like, consider the events they threw during their eight years at the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory. The most famous was the annual beach-themed party for members of his staff, the press corps and their families. The casual cookout’s highlight was when the vice president would lead a troop of kids, armed with super-soaker water guns, in spraying down their parents. While state dinners and the like will, of course, be more elegant, many expect the couple to host family-friendly events, particularly for military families, a focus for Jill as second lady.
Kevin Chaffee, senior editor of Washington Life magazine and a longtime observer of the city’s social scene, says the Bidens have an opportunity to bring back the kind of diplomatic, bipartisan gatherings that were common in past administrations. Both Bidens are sociable people, he notes. And they won’t have trouble attracting the kinds of glittering guests that traditionally have glammed up wonky crowds, unlike the Trump administration, which was anathema to most of Hollywood and the arts crowd.
State dinners, which cap off visits from heads of states whose alliances are celebrated with a string of public ceremonies and social events, will be particularly important, Chaffee says: “They have all the fences to mend."
The couple is known to be mindful of their guests: Freeman says Joe never eats when standing at a party or reception, to better pay attention to conversations. And the ultimate grace note? The couple never served green salads at official dinners, he says, so diners would never have the awkward experience of having a stray green stick to their teeth — and a photographer capturing the moment for history.
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