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Checking in with the Chicago Contingent of the Obama White House

MIDWEST WING: Giordano’s pizza ordered from the White House? Goose Island beer at Washington parties? A crew of young Chicagoans has followed Obama to the capital. They are bringing a touch of home to D.C.’s social scene—just as Washington ways are shaping them

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Photo Gallery

Chicago’s winners and losers in Election 2008

Congressman Mike Quigley was standing in a little row house in the shadow of the Capitol, reciting lines from Mike Royko’s Boss, the bestseller about the late mayor Richard Daley: “But you could always tell, even with your eyes closed, which state you were in by the odors of the food stores and the open kitchen windows, the sound of the foreign or familiar language, and by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock.”

No one clocked Quigley with a rock, but the Chicago congressman could have been forgiven for thinking that he was in his hometown. Behind him, a long table was filled with all the trappings for Chicago dogs: poppy-seed buns, slippery grilled onions, freshly chopped white onions, electric-green relish, thick quartered pickles, sliced tomatoes, juicy hot peppers, celery salt, mustard, and, of course, an aluminum tub piled high with all-beef dogs. In fact, Quigley was playing host to a fundraiser—a suggested $1,000 donation bought Chicago dogs and the chance to schmooze the congressman from Illinois’s Fifth District, Emanuel’s replacement. But Quigley was quick to point out the flaws with his Chicago-cum-D.C. spread.

“This is like a B,” he said, offering a grade. “But for D.C., it’s not bad. You’re supposed to have a big pickle on your hot dog, you’re supposed to have mustard—but for these people, heathens that they are, we put ketchup on the table. For the D.C. people.”

So where in Washington could the congressman close his eyes and know exactly where he was?

Quigley shrugged. “The floor?” he offered. “The House floor?” Then he resumed talking smack about his temporary town. In Washington, transience can often seem like the town’s most permanent trait. The adjustment can be tricky for someone from Chicago, where roots run deep. “You have third-generation Cubs and Sox fans in Chicago,” says Quigley’s press assistant, Ben Strauss, 24, who moved from Lake View last summer before landing a job with the congressman. “You don’t have third-generation anything in D.C.” (Redskins fans might disagree.)

“There isn’t the same vibrancy in D.C.,” Strauss continues. “People come to D.C. to work. To live in D.C. is to work. You can be friends with someone in Chicago for years and not be quite sure what they do. In D.C., the first question out of your mouth is, ‘What do you do?’ You never leave home without a business card. You can never really relax.”

The Chicago crew is still struggling to find a favorite restaurant or a deli that can rival Axelrod’s beloved Manny’s on South Jefferson Street. (Axelrod recently had an infusion of corned beef and turkey legs shipped from home.) But Union Pub, an ersatz Bears bar on Capitol Hill, frequently pops up as a favorite Chicago hangout, a place where administration staffers are sure to spot a familiar face.

“They play the Chicago Bears theme song every time the Bears score a touchdown,” says 24-year-old Luke Rosa, a Lincoln Park native who just finished an internship in the White House and is now looking for a job while keeping busy with freelance work for the administration. “Everyone is in Chicago jerseys. It’s pretty much like being in a Chicago bar watching a Bears game.”

Beyond sports, food provides a link to home for many Chicagoans. There’s a Secret Service agent from Chicago on the president’s detail who is also an amateur chef, and he makes deep-dish for hungry colleagues. Susan Sher’s husband was invited to the first annual White House seder last year and came bearing macaroons from Manny’s—“because he felt only those were the best,” Sher says, laughing. They attended again this March, and about a week before, one of the Secret Service agents from last year saw Sher and asked if she’d be bringing macaroons. Yes, indeed.

Sam Kass, the 30-year-old White House chef with a smooth shaved head, plummy lips, dimples, and an easy smile that landed him on People’s “Most Beautiful” list last year, has also been slowly adjusting to his new home. He seems to have cracked the Washington-as-outsider code, carving out a niche for himself by simply doing his own thing—getting to know his new neighborhood, meeting some nonwork friends, throwing himself into his East Wing job—and neither shunning nor coveting the spotlight.

Kass also carries the title food initiative coordinator, which means he handles the garden on the South Lawn and Michelle Obama’s extensive food and health programs. He once cooked for the Obamas in Chicago; now he brings inner-city kids in for tours of the White House garden, and he accompanied the First Lady when she helped open a farmers’ market in downtown Washington last fall.

Kass can already rattle off a few of his favorite D.C. restaurants: Founding Farmers, Zaytinya, anything by the famed chef José Andrés. “I love Good Stuff,” he says, referring to the quirky burger joint owned by the former Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn.

Standing in the South Lawn garden one morning, Kass showed off the White House beehive—a cluster of large pastel-colored boxes stacked four high atop an elevated platform, tied down with thick yellow straps so the whole thing doesn’t blow away when the president’s helicopter touches down.

“It’s really good honey,” Kass said. A little of Chicago began to creep into his accent as he continued: “I’ve tasted lots of honey. I’d put my honey up against anyone’s.”

Although he was talking about honey, he could have been talking about anything, really—his new life in the nation’s capital, the unforeseen pressures of his job, the little ways in which he’s trying to change Washington while the city slowly changes him as well.

He paused for a moment and smiled. “Yeah, bring it.”

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