Congressman Jim McGovern and Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty dining at El Basha in Worcester, MA.Congressman Jim McGovern and Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty dining at El Basha in Worcester, MA.

Some say it’s taboo to talk politics at the dinner table, but I tend to disagree.  What better place to get to know our elected officials than at their favorite restaurants? We grabbed a quick bite with Congressman Jim McGovern and Mayor Joseph Petty and talked shop at El Basha.

Congressman Jim McGovern is happy to describe the glazed carrots he ate when he received his James Beard Award, the pupusas he enjoyed cooked over hot rocks in El Salvador, the Cuban sandwiches he consumed in Cuba, his preference for unrefrigerated garden tomatoes, the raw milk that had him hooked after a farmer plied him with cookies, and even the bologna sandwich he passed up after eight hours in jail with George Clooney. But, he’d rather talk about school lunch. So would his friend and colleague, Mayor Joseph Petty.

As Mayor of Worcester, Petty is proud of the work that his city’s public schools are doing to alleviate hunger. He acknowledges that there are plenty of districts who worry about canceling school in the winter because of the number of students who depend on schools for meals. “We are lucky to have programs like Recreation Worcester to help alleviate hunger in the summer,” he adds.

McGovern recalls visiting a school as a young politician on a Monday. He inquired about the students staring off into space and one of the teachers explained, “Many of them haven’t eaten all weekend.” He was horrified.

Petty is hopeful about the number of community gardens and urban agricultural efforts blossoming in the city of Worcester, which is how we arrive on the topic of raw milk. “We treat everything in America; it’s lucky we still have anything with taste!” McGovern argues.

Petty doesn’t look convinced on the prospect of consuming unpasteurized dairy. “What’s the shelf life?” he asks.

“Not long! But the people drinking it all look healthy. We ought to have the choice. We just need to label food. It all comes back to the GMO fight,” says McGovern.

Petty agrees. “In my opinion, even the willingness to post calories says a lot.”

As if on cue, our server at El Basha arrives with Homus Blahme and Stuffed Grape Leaves. The conversation ceases while we pass a basket of fresh pita bread around the table. Both of these politicians love El Basha. “I hosted my election night party here. As a matter of fact, Deval Patrick and Martha Coakley have both been to El Basha. This is the kind of place that represents what is so great about our city’s immigrants,” explains Petty.

Tonight is particularly busy for a weeknight, thanks to the Gay Professionals Networking event that’s taking place just a few paces away. One of the attendees stops by to ask McGovern if he’ll be marching at Northampton Pride. McGovern asks his Political Director to check their schedule and together they inspect the five inch screen of a smart phone. The Congressman apologizes, explaining, “It seems I’ll be with His Holiness the Dalai Lama that day.”

This is not the last surprise of the evening. These men have tales to tell. Which, brings us back to the subject of school lunches. “In 1997, I visited a second grade class with United States Senator George McGovern (no relation.) At lunch, they served us the sloppiest sloppy joes – they were so slick. And, an apple. The kids weren’t eating their apples, so George McGovern asked for a knife and cut the fruit up into little pieces. They loved it! It turned out, the kids weren’t eating their apples because that’s the age when you lose your teeth.”

Sometimes, the solution is simple. “Doctors can’t write a prescription for healthy food, but food is medicine. Developing healthy habits early on is so important,” stresses McGovern. I wonder if he told the prison guard with the bologna sandwich the same thing.

Mayor Petty couldn’t agree more. And, although he cites El Basha’s sirloin as one of the best in Worcester, I notice that he orders the fish. So does McGovern, actually. Baked haddock with tahini, and salmon with sautéed spinach, respectively.

“If we get this right early on, we will have fewer cases of diabetes and high blood pressure. We can prevent human suffering,” says McGovern.

I ask if either of them like to cook. Petty says that he and his wife do their best to split the cooking in their household. I ask about McGovern’s wife, and he launches into the story of their wedding day.

“We were married in D.C. at our favorite church, which happened to be in sort of a tough neighborhood,” he explains. “The wedding was scheduled for 7 p.m. so we got a bus to bring all of our guests to the ceremony and when we got to the church, there was a Quinceañera going on. The priest was very relaxed about the whole thing. He came out and said, ‘When we get this done, you’ll get married.’ Nothing went according to plan. The theme from Phantom of the Opera played during our service. The photographer got into a car accident on his way. On top of that, my best man had reserved the Presidential Suite for us at our hotel the night before. It had a fireplace, but the damper was closed when they tried to light the thing and the whole hotel had to be evacuated. We both smelled like smoke going down the aisle.”

The Congressman’s Political Director perks up. They clearly spend quite a bit of time together, but he hasn’t heard that one before. I’ll bet none of McGovern’s celebrity chef confidantes like Jose Andres, Tom Colicchio, or even Sam Kass know that story either. “Food helps people socialize,” McGovern says.

Mayor Petty chuckles, “I couldn’t agree more.”

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