Iowa restaurateurs debrief with Obama Foodorama about the President's visit and their star turn on national TV...video clip included...
Three days after President Obama made a lunch-time stop to sample the gargantuan Magic Mountain sandwiches at her restaurant, Ross', in Bettendorf, Iowa, owner Cynthia Ross-Freidhof, 57, said she still feels like "I'm in a dream." Freidhof and her daughter Melissa Freidhof-Rogers, 37, debriefed with Obama Foodorama on Friday night, just after they'd demo'd the presidential favorites for TV host Rachel Maddow on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, in the New York City studio. (Above: Melissa, left with Maddow and Freidhof on set)
The President during his Tuesday visit to the 24-hour eatery had ordered four Magic Mountains--grilled Texas toast topped with loose steamed hamburger meat, piled high with a choice of French fries or hash browns, homemade cheddar cheese sauce, as well as two Volcanoes, which is the Magic Mountain with the addition of a scoop of 5-alarm meat chili and onions on top. The White House loved the Presidential outing so much it was Photo of the Day on the official website, and featured in the video series West Wing Week. Maddow was equally enchanted, and invited the duo to her show. It was the first time food has ever been featured on the political commentary program. (Above: the President and Freidhof during his visit)
"This is stupendous," Maddow said as she dug into a just-made Volcano. “I've never been happier than I am at this moment."
The outing on national TV left them exhausted and "stunned," Freidhof and Melissa both said; the excitement of having the President show up in their eatery had taken a surreal turn with the invitation from Maddow.
"I was terrified," Melissa said of making the sandwiches for the cameras. It doesn't show onscreen, however.
Freidhof and Melissa rehearsed earlier in the day in the NBC Today show kitchen, and a food stylist was on hand to help get things exactly right.
"They were so genuinely enthusiastic and excited, they're so much fun," Melissa said of Maddow and her staff. Maddow dubbed the sandwiches "The Next Best Thing in The World Today."
Melissa and her mom presented Maddow with the "key" to Bettendorf during their visit.
Freidhof was still trying to process a week of unlikely events, especially, she said, because the whole Presidential visit to her restaurant was a bit "weird," given that it was inspired by a meeting in August, 2008, when Freidhof interacted with Candidate Obama as he held a town hall for undecided voters in Davenpot, Iowa. Freidhof was not herself undecided, but she wanted a photo of a Republican girlfriend with Candidate Obama, so much so that she interrupted him as he was prepping to take the stage.
"It was a little rude," Freidhof admitted. "But I wanted my photo." She got it.
But the photo came out blurry, so as Candidate Obama's Q & A with the crowd was wrapping up, Freidhof madly waved her hand to be selected for the last question, to try for one last photo op. Mr. Obama called on her, and because she didn't actually have a question for him, she described her family-owned business, and their mountainous sandwiches. And she told the Candidate that her husband Ron Freidhof, a long-time Republican, definitely was on the fence about switching political parties, worried about the Democratic impact on small businesses. Candidate Obama took Freidhof's sparkly pink cell phone and called Ron to personally woo him; Maddow runs a clip of the exchange in her segment. (Above: Freidhof, in purple, watches the President chat on her cell phone)
During the call, the President promised to visit; almost three years later, he showed up at Ross'.
"The President said to me "I told you I was coming," like I should have expected it," Freidhof said. "But I didn't. I thought maybe later, closer to the election, but not then [Tuesday]."
She said she was truly surprised as the motorcade pulled up to the restaurant, because there was no advance Secret Service screening and thus a tip-off; it turned out that agents had scoped out the eatery over the weekend before the President's visit. And two agents stood in the kitchen with Melissa as she made the President's order, Melissa said. One was cute, Southern and blonde, and told Melissa that he and his fellow agents loved Ross' huge cinnamon rolls (the President hoisted one into the air as he visited), and had been fighting over these.
“He said that he had been in for breakfast on Sunday, as well as several other times that weekend,” Melissa said.
The President was "genuine," and actually shook hands with every patron at Ross' during the busy lunch rush, Freidhof said.
"It was an honor, really, and like 'oh, wow,'" Freidhof said.
"I am thrilled to be here," President Obama announced during his visit.
Yes, the President ate his Magic Mountain...
Unlike some Presidential food stops, where the to-go order is handed off to an aide, President Obama actually ate his Magic Mountain, Melissa told Obama Foodorama. Melissa said a Ross' staffer had spotted President Obama through the window of the his limo, taking a bite, and a White House aide also called afterwards to say the President dubbed his sandwich "delicious." Mr. Obama still "smelled like French fries" during his visit to the nearby Alcoa factory after he dropped by Ross', a pal who managed to get in sniffing distance of the President reported to the restaurateurs.
"He's so genuine, we're so lucky," Freidhof said of the President. "And it's not like I agree with everything--I hate the war. But he's doing the best he can."
Ross' is considered a must-stop for the many, many candidates who make the required campaign pilgrimage to Iowa, because it's a "quintessential" American eatery, and popular not only with locals, but with the many truckers who drive through Iowa and take a detour just for the food. But the President's visit is a standout, Freidhof said, adding that political debates go on all the time over the lunch counter.
"Republicans sit on one side of the counter, and Democrats sit on the other," Melissa explained.
Freidhof's deceased father, a well-known Republican, founded the restaurant in 1944, and he would have appreciated the President's visit too, Freidhof said. Her father was known for giving political "sermons," she said.
Campaign trail eating?...
Maddow bills the President's stop at Ross' as a "campaign trail treat," a relaxation of the disciplined eating regime required to keep presidents fit for office, and a "wonderful" return to the "required" campaign trail consumption of delicious, high-calorie treats that are found in diners and on fair grounds across America. But the truth is, President Obama has been eating like he's on the campaign trail since he got into office. His public dining excursions routinely involve chili, hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream. Most recently, before the Ross' stop, President Obama had chili and a hot dog at Ray's in Toledo, Ohio, and a huge ham and cheese sandwich during a lunch stop at Kasalta bakery in Puerto Rico. (Above: the President in action at Ray's, with Toledo Mayor Michel Bell)
In 2010, the President even took Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev out for a burger during Mevedev's visit to the White House, and sent French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy for a lunch of chili half smokes at Ben's Chili Bowl in DC.
White House assistant chef Sam Kass routinely says in interviews that he cooks very healthy, vegetable intensive meals for the First Family, and there's no reason to disbelieve him. But the President's public eating has been exclusively devoted to the kinds of things that First lady Michelle Obama, with the Let's Move! campaign, suggests be eaten only as treats.
"If you flip burgers or operate a fry basket, stay on your toes," one DC-based food writer warned local restaurateurs in May of 2009, when attempting to predict the next Obama dining excursion; a pattern of Presidential junkfood runs was already well established four months after the Obamas moved into the White House. The President's solo eating adventures are the polar opposite of those he enjoys in the company of Mrs. Obama; then, white-tablecloth restaurants that source locally, seasonally and in general organically are chosen. The First Couple dined out together most recently at DC's Tosca, an Italian restaurant that fits this bill.
"I tell my kids, if you eat your vegetables at every meal, then when you’re out with your friends on a weekend and you have pizza and ice cream for the entire weekend, you’ll still be okay," Mrs. Obama told her pool of print reporters in February of 2011.
No apologies needed for the First Lady...
Melissa was very aware of Let's Move!, and asked Obama Foodorama to issue something of an apology for her and her mother winding up on national TV with sandwiches that don't necessarily fit the First Lady's bill. Told that Mrs. Obama herself adores French fries, and believes that a lifestyle of balance and moderation includes things like Magic Mountains, Melissa was relieved. Still, she pointed out, laughing, the way the Magic Mountain sandwiches are cooked--the hamburger meat is steamed--actually draws out a lot of the fat. The sandwiches were invented by her father and uncle in the 1970s, Melissa said. (Above: A close-up of Melissa prepping a Volcano)
And Ross', Melissa said, actually serves plenty of healthy foods, and uses produce from local farmers, in partnership with Iowa's Local Harvest. They also use Iowa beef, and serve 4,000 organic eggs weekly, sourced from local farmers. This practice, Melissa pointed out, saved Ross' from being involved in the 1/2 billion egg recall for salmonella that originated with two Iowa egg operations.
The very spicy chili used for the Volcanoes includes Iowa-grown jalapenos and other herbs, and it also takes a day to make as it simmers, so the duo carted a freezer box loaded with their chili onto the multiple airplanes they had to take to get from Iowa to the Big Apple. The chili got its own pat down from the TSA agent on duty, Melissa said. (Above: Melissa, Freidhof, and their chili at the airport, en route to New York)
"I love it that our chili set off their sensors," Melissa said.
She and her mother both believe the chili has medicinal properties, thanks to its spiciness. Freidhof mentioned this to Maddow during their segment.
The duo were scheduled to return to Iowa on Saturday, after their heady trip to New York, which included a late-night visit to the bustling Times Square.
"My mother loves it here and would stay here for a month," Melissa said. "But I have to get home to my kids."
Info: Ross' is at 430 14th Street, Bettendorf, Iowa, 52722. Phone: 563. 355.7573.
*Photo of President and Freidhof by AP; 2008 photo by Larry Fisher, Quad City Times; Ray's photo by Pete Souza/White House; airport photo courtesy of the Freidhofs; video segment and screengrabs from The Rachel Maddow Show