WASHINGTON (AP) -- Like his creed and his conversation, President Bush favors the decidedly down-home in his cuisine: spicy meat steaming with the wood-soaked smoke of the fiery pit.
But don't look for ribs and coleslaw when he gives his first state dinner Wednesday: decorum trumps domestic, said the spokeswoman for the first lady, who is organizing the meal for Mexican President Vicente Fox.
"This is a formal state dinner, not a southwest barbecue," gasped Noelia Rodriguez when asked if the meal would reflect presidential tastes. Bush had joked that he wouldn't mind cheese enchiladas.
Laura Bush's staff is otherwise mum about the kitchen. Still, Bush's preference for Tex-Mex is no secret, and has even become part of his statecraft. He served chicken enchiladas last month to the Democratic Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle.
"They were very good," Daschle said, before skewering Bush's foreign policy.
Bush's favorite Texas caterer, Eddie Deen, flew to Washington to supervise three inaugural balls, one offering bacon-wrapped chicken with jalapeno sliver, another with jalapenos stuffed with whole shrimp, yet another with jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese.
"He does favor jalapeno peppers," Deen said, adding that his hickory-smoked ribs were also Bush favorites.
Deen briefly contemplated setting up shop in Washington, saying: "I'll be the guy next to the smoker parked in front of the White House."
Promises, promises. Deen flew back after the ball and Mrs. Bush soon worried aloud that her husband was "not getting enough Tex-Mex food" in Washington.
Another favored Bush chef, David Garrido of Jeffrey's in Austin, Texas, opened a branch at the Watergate hotel in April, and the Bushes were among the first patrons.
Garrido is familiar with the Bush hankering for hot peppers -- chipotles, anchos and habaneros are other favorites -- but he's inclined not to overwhelm the meal with them.
"I like to use chilies, but not so strong that they will overpower a nice bottle of wine," Garrido said. (Bush is a teetotaler, but his wife is a wine enthusiast.)
No such compunctions were seen at another favored Austin eatery, the Shoreline Grill, when Bush had a spread for his campaign staff there on election night.
"We put green chilies in the mashed potatoes to amp it up a bit," manager Jan Peterson said.
Tex-Mex was a natural for a family man, says the top chef at the governor's mansion in Austin.
"When you have teen-age kids you have to take into account what they like," said Sarah Bishop. The Bushes' twins, Barbara and Jenna, are 19.
Enthusiasts point out that Tex-Mex is much more than barbecue, encompassing the abundant Gulf of Mexico sea life and flora. An emphasis on broiling rather than frying can make it healthier than some other American cuisines.
Bush favored Bishop's three-meat gumbo and her blue crab cakes. The Bushes also share a sweet tooth -- the president likes praline-and-cream ice cream and ends his Air Force One meals with Oreo cookies.
Mrs. Bush's tastes ventured beyond the region, Bishop said, and one of her favorite dishes was from the Mexican interior: Calabacitas rellenas, squash stuffed with corn and cheese.
The first lady has taken the first state dinner seriously, and has been sampling a wide variety of dishes since early July.
Her husband's appreciation of foreign foods is more limited. Last week, he asked a reporter just returned from the West Coast whether she had dined on "brie and cheese," not realizing, perhaps, that brie sans cheese is like a hot dog, hold the sausage.
Such parochialism is not unusual, according to Henry Haller, who cooked for presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. All preferred American, he said -- Johnson loved barbecue, and Reagan favored meatloaf.
It was a challenge for the French-trained Swiss chef. "Tell me, what is American food?"
He recalled with a shudder his first assignment for LBJ: potato salad and coleslaw for an event otherwise catered by "someone from Texas called the 'barbecue king,' I forget his name."'
"I tried to please the American palate," he said. "They were the ones who employed me."
Presidential tastes show signs of refining: While the elder Bush famously disdained broccoli, the younger Bush objects merely to the stalks.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.