Hell yes, Beto O’Rourke is on Cooking in Quarantine

What he’s cooking, how to make it, and why food banks need your support—now more than ever

Photo: Isaac Dovere, The Atlantic 

The night Beto O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz—but won more votes than any Democrat in the history of Texas—he came home and cooked his kids quesadillas, wearing the same blue button down he was sweating through a few hours earlier when he looked out at a crowd of supporters and declared: “I’m so fucking proud of you guys.”

The next morning, Beto made blueberry scones, which he called “baking therapy.” A few days later, he sent out a thank you letter, in which he described cooking his kids a feast earlier that morning. “I went on a run with Artemis and then made breakfast,” Beto wrote. “Scones, German pancakes, bacon, eggs, and some bread that Jim and Christine brought by last night with butter and jam on it.”

“It’s not Whataburger,” he concluded, before reflecting on the campaign he ran: “How was I so lucky to be part of something so amazing?” 

Speaking of Whataburger, you may have seen pictures of Beto there eating a double cheeseburger (hold the tomato) with Vice President Joe Biden on the eve of Super Tuesday, which was somehow only four weeks ago, because we are living in a time warp. Or you might remember Beto playing air drums to Baba O'Riley on line at a Whataburger drive-through the night of his first debate with Ted Cruz.

In private and public, during his senate campaign and his presidential campaign, Beto’s choices of what to eat have helped shape our image of him. And I’d be lying if I said that video of Beto at the Whataburger drive-through didn’t factor into my decision to uproot my life and move to El Paso to work for him.

But when I think about Beto and food, the first meal I picture isn’t any of the ones I mentioned above—or even the scandalous English muffin burger he made on Instagram. No, I think about a dinner that received far less media coverage.

This was in July of 2019. Beto’s presidential campaign was stagnant in the polls. And the debate in Detroit was less than a week away. But instead of spending the night memorizing talking points or rehearsing with a mock debate, Beto and his wife Amy cooked spaghetti with a family in Flint. 

More than half a decade after the water crisis had begun, the family whose home they ate at still didn’t have clean water. So they had to use two gallons of bottled water to boil pasta. They had to change the filter in their shower about every month, because otherwise it would destroy their skin. Their dog, who didn’t know better than to drink the water, would have deformities for the rest of its life. 

When I asked Beto about that night, he told me he never could have learned all of this at a traditional campaign event. “Cooking lends itself to a conversation that goes well beyond small talk or niceties,” he explained. “I had such a better appreciation of what it was like to be in Flint over the last few years, and what their hopes were going forward, than I would have if I’d read a briefing memo or been at a roundtable meeting.” 

The next week, a gunman came to El Paso and killed 22 of Beto’s neighbors in an act of white supremacist violence, and his response to that event will always define his campaign. But for me, Beto’s presidential race—indeed, my understanding of Beto—will always be shaped by that night he spent making spaghetti. Because more than anything else, Beto runs for office to learn the stories of everyone with whom he shares this country; and then, to represent them in the halls of power. And as he saw in Flint, there are few better ways to understand America than through the food we eat—and the conversations we have while doing it. 

That’s why I asked Beto to be part of this newsletter—because I wanted to hear what he thought about the importance of cooking at this moment in time... and, if I’m being honest, because I wanted to understand why the hell he puts burgers on English muffins. 

Enough me. 

Now, Beto O’Rourke.

How Beto Figured Out How To Cook His Mom’s “Oven-Baked Lemon Chicken” Recipe (After Failing A Bunch Of Times)

Beto: I have been trying to master this lemon onion chicken that my mom makes. She's an amazing cook and it's the best thing she makes—and she makes a lot of really good stuff. And I have unsuccessfully, over the last couple of months, tried to make it. And I just have not been able to get it right. And Amy's kind of getting sick of me trying to make it.

But I made it last night. And I'm just really proud of myself and really satisfied because it was so much work. And it also was just not self-evident how to do it. Like, I followed her directions to a T... and the skin on the chicken wasn't crisp, beautiful, and brown like hers. So I put the chicken back in for another 40 minutes. And it's perfect.

Editor’s note: Look at that char!

It’s hard to describe the taste, but it's just amazing. It's buttery. Lemon, onion, garlic. And it’s just so good. So I pulled that off. I'm really happy about that. It's a big achievement because I kind of worried that my mom will take that stuff with her to the grave, and none of us will be able to replicate her mastery of all these recipes. 

And she has so many of them, but at least getting this one down felt good.

Here’s the recipe for the chicken, as conveyed to Beto through texts with his mom. (#RELATABLECONTENT.)

How Beto Makes His Famous Flank Steak

Beto: It started out as a Mark Bittman recipe. It's basically a marinade of lime, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and a little bit of sugar.

READ: Mark Bittman’s flank steak recipe.

I let it marinate for an hour or two and then I take it out of the marinade, pat it dry, heavily salt and pepper it, so it'll have a nice char to it. Then, I put it on a really hot charcoal grill and do each side for four minutes. And then, I put it on a little bit of a cooler part of the grill for two minutes a side. 

And it's the best thing that I've learned how to make. And when we serve it, Amy will make potatoes. She dices them and puts them in like a tin foil pouch with a big slab of butter, some jalapeños, salt and pepper, and maybe some green onions. If we have a guest over that we're trying to impress, we typically serve that.

Editor’s Note: You can watch Beto and Amy make their signature dishes at the beginning of this video from ABC News. 

How Beto Started Serving Burgers on English Muffins

Beto: It's a function of marriage. This is something that Amy brought to the relationship. But I've really come to enjoy it. We do a diner-style hamburger where there's high fat content in the ground beef. And you don't touch the meat at all. You don't knead it or anything. You just get it into a ball, put it down on the frying pan, and immediately smash it really thin. Salt and pepper, flip it, put some American cheese on it, and double stack it on a toasted English muffin with mayonnaise. And then I put raw onion and that's it.

And it's just a meat bomb. It is so good. 

I try not to do a ton of that. The last couple of times I've been to a doctor, they're looking at cholesterol and things like that. I'm inching closer to 50 years old. So we'll do that maybe once every few months, but it is really good. 

Outside of the house, of course, you can't get a burger on an English muffin. I resisted at first when Amy introduced it, but I really, really like it. 

Why Beto Turns To Cooking in Difficult Moments

Beto: It’s so fulfilling to bake and to cook because it's a defined process. You understand all the inputs. You know when you're done. And it's very easy to judge your performance. And you can constantly get better, as I seek to do with any of this stuff that I'm making.

You know, the world of politics is so uncertain. There are so many variables out of your control. And a campaign, depending on what you're running for, could be up to a two-year process, like the Senate campaign in Texas. We started in January 2017—and of course, it didn’t end till November 2018.

So I like having this thing that you can completely focus on to the exclusion of every other distraction. There's no Twitter going on. At most, you have the radio on a news program, or a playlist, or a podcast. And even with family coming in and out of the kitchen, I can be singularly focused on the task at hand.

There are a few things like that in my life. And so I really, really appreciate that. I didn't realize this until you brought all that up, but probably at moments of higher stress or uncertainty or anxiety, I may naturally turn to cooking because it defeats all of those things. 

Why You Should Support El Paso’s Food Bank Right Now (If You Can)

Beto: Last Thursday, Amy and I volunteered at our local food bank, which is called El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, and the line of people waiting for food was two miles long. And it's wonderful that the community can feed itself in that way. People have been generous in donating money and volunteers are generous in donating their time, but I'm afraid that demand is far outpacing the capacity that we have in the community.

Molly and Amy hearing that their volunteer crew packed 1200 boxes of food for the elderly at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank. All Senior Centers are closed in El Paso - volunteers are needed to pack these boxes for distribution. Sign up for a shift at: elpasoansfightinghunger.org
March 18, 2020

El Paso is one of the poorest urban counties in the country. We're a county of about a million people, of which more than 200,000 are food insecure. And when you add to that the massive layoffs that we've seen since the coronavirus pandemic, it helps explain those very, very long lines. But an added challenge is that because we don't have the money or the resources that many other communities have, it means that our food bank is bidding against food banks in Chicago and New York and L.A. and Houston for the food that we need to feed our fellow El Pasoans. And we're just really having a hard time making ends meet.

So we are both volunteering our time and then trying to encourage people to donate to El Pasoans Fighting Hunger. [Editor’s Note: Donate here.] This is a food bank which, by the way, fed a lot of the community after the August 3rd Walmart massacre. It's a community that, along with Annunciation House, has fed a lot of the asylum seekers and refugees as well as the relief workers and volunteers who help out those asylum seekers and refugees. 

So it's a food bank that, in addition to feeding a fairly poor community, has also fed them in times of extraordinary stress. And this is a moment where it really needs the help of as many people as can answer the call.

One More Thing, From Me, Sam:

If you’re watching Trump’s press briefings every day, and you’re thinking to yourself:

Then you need to register to vote, and show up to the polls in November. We should be done social distancing by then. But in the meantime, call your governor and demand that they allow vote-by-mail.

Just in case.

Until next time...