WASHINGTON – Mary Podesta's home cooking has raised millions of dollars for Democrats and benefited a who's who of candidates. Among them are Sen. Tom Daschle (search) of South Dakota, the current minority leader; Sen. John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts; and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search) of New York.
Podesta, 86, is known to many of Washington's Democratic elite as "Mama Podesta." Her cooking has been a staple of Democratic fund raising for nearly two decades, since she moved from Chicago to Washington in the late 1980s, several years after her husband's death. That was before one son, John, became chief of staff to President Clinton and started a think tank, and a second son, Tony, helped found the lobbying and public relations firm PodestaMattoon.
It was Tony Podesta who asked if his mother would cook for Democratic fund-raisers at his house. Since then, she has cooked pasta and peeled vegetables for more candidates than she can keep track of. Her meals, which often feature homemade pesto sauce and are prepared without recipes, have become about as well-known as the campaigns they help.
"I know a lot of times I'll be at a function someplace and they go, 'Oh, you're the Pesto Queen,'" she says. "Oh God. I never looked for that title!"
She's not an anxious cook, no matter who's coming to dinner.
Patiently peeling carrots with a spoon in Tony's kitchen, she leaves marinara sauce simmering untouched for minutes on end — confident all will be ready, and unburned, for a Senate fund-raiser in a few hours.
"Patience is a virtue," Mary Podesta says, explaining that keeping the homemade sauce of tomatoes, sauteed Swiss chard, garlic, salt, sugar and olive oil bubbling at low heat will cook it thoroughly but gently, without the risk of burning.
But what about peeling all those carrots — enough for 50 people! — with a spoon? Why not just tear through them with a carrot peeler or toss them into a food processor?
"No, you wouldn't, because you wouldn't have the same results," she says.
"You don't take anything but the thin peel off that way. Look, it's like paper," she says, holding up an almost-translucent strip of carrot skin.
The carrots are steamed for five minutes to seven minutes to soften the peels for easy removal. The carrots, crunchy and flavorful, are then sliced into a salad with capers, Italian parsley, olive oil, paper-thin pieces of unpeeled lemon and a pinch of coarse kosher salt, topped off with freshly ground black pepper.
Joining the carrot salad and pasta with marinara sauce on tonight's menu for North Carolina Senate candidate Erskine Bowles' fund-raiser is a fennel, endive and radicchio salad and grilled chicken marinated in olive oil, lemon, pepper and oregano.
Mary Podesta grew up in Chicago, the daughter of Greek-Americans who spoke Greek at home. She started school without knowing a word of English and went through a year of kindergarten before the teachers realized it. Her mother, a Greek immigrant, went to school to learn English and get her citizenship papers after that.
"That's why you do have empathy for the people that do come from other countries, because you know what they're going through," she says. "We're born and raised here and everybody knows the language, but when you don't know and you're just in the dark, that's not easy."
She heads a political family — in addition to her sons' activities, Tony Podesta's wife, Heather, is a lobbyist and John Podesta's wife, Mary, is a Washington lawyer. But Mary Podesta does not often mix at the fund-raisers, preferring kitchen duty.
In fact, her cooking is really more about doing something nice for Tony than it is about politics. As predicted, tonight's dinner has turned out perfectly.
"If the other one would want me to do something for him, I would do the same thing," Mrs. Podesta says. Even if he asked her to cook for 500 people?
"I would try."