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Napolitano Uses Homemade Cooking to Bond With Staff, Colleagues

“Serve him a little bit, guys!” Rep. Grace F. Napolitano tells the congressional staffers milling about her Longworth office as a visitor arrives.

Napolitano is bent over a hot plate that’s set up on a newspaper-covered table in a corner of her office, stirring a mixture of chorizo and eggs.

The dish is just one part of the traditional Tex-Mex breakfast the California Democrat is sharing with her staff and others lucky enough to stop by 1610 Longworth on an otherwise quiet Wednesday morning on the House side of Capitol Hill.

Already prepared are migas — a mixture of scrambled eggs, vegetables and strips of corn tortillas — as well as a homemade batch of salsa and a bowl of pinto beans cooked with bacon. In another nook of the office, staffers are flipping freshly cooked tortillas on a griddle to hold all of the aforementioned ingredients for chorizo-and-egg burritos.

It’s a cooking day in Napolitano’s office — an approximately monthly event where staffers buzz about, helping Napolitano prepare the type of traditional Tex-Mex meals she has been preparing for her friends and family for years.

The eight-term member brings back fresh ingredients, such as chorizo and the ingredients for fresh corn tortillas, from her trips to her Southern California district to share with her staff. It’s her way of showing her appreciation.

“It’s keeping them happy,” Napolitano says with a laugh about why she cooks for her employees.

Staffers say the cooking days, which they unanimously dubbed “great days,” help break up the fast-paced, high-stress environment of Capitol Hill and bring the staff closer together, helping Napolitano’s office run more smoothly.

Napolitano’s chief of staff, Daniel Chao, who has been working with Napolitano since 1999, is originally from Texas and says he appreciates not only the authentic Tex-Mex food Napolitano makes but also her generosity.

“It’s refreshing,” Chao said. “Not every member brings in fresh produce from California. And when she first started doing it, I was thinking how unusual it was. But then when she takes the actual produce out and you see it’s nothing that we get here in Washington, D.C., it really makes it really fresh and unique.”

He added that the cooking days offer an often necessary reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the Capitol Hill culture.

“It’s a nice break of the stress of the workday,” Chao said, “to take a moment, enjoy food, enjoy company and then get back to work.”

Napolitano Press Secretary Jerry O’Donnell said the adventures in cooking are a good team-building exercise as well.

“We cook together, we clean up together, and it’s all because the congresswoman is generous enough to share the food she brings back with her from California,” O’Donnell said. “But it really brings us closer together because we’re eating good food and we’re happy.”

Texas Via California

Napolitano was born and raised in Texas and learned to cook Tex-Mex meals from her mother-in-law after getting married to her husband at the age of 18.

“My mother was more into — because she was a single mom and she worked all the time — was more into sandwiches,” Napolitano said of why she learned to cook from others.

Sharing her passion for cooking with friends, family and colleagues is important to Napolitano, who has been cooking for members of Congress, staffers and those who attend her fundraisers since she was elected to Congress in 1998.

In her early years in Congress, Napolitano would prepare the food for all of the fundraisers she hosted. By now, she has given her recipes and secrets to a chef, who prepares the food the same way Napolitano would.

Her food also helps her build relationships with other members of Congress, both in her party and across the aisle.

High-ranking Republican members of Congress such as former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and former House Rules Chairman David Dreier, a fellow Californian, are fans of Napolitano’s citric-acid-free guacamole, a trick Napolitano says makes her guacamole fresher and tastier than others.

“He [Dreier] would take the guacamole bowl and give this much to people and take the entire bowl because he loved the stuff,” Napolitano said, gesturing to the tiny amount of guacamole that Dreier would share with others, saving the rest for himself.

A slew of members in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — including Democratic Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California — rave about Napolitano’s salsa and chorizo.

Brainstorming sessions with the CHS’ Building Our Leadership Diversity PAC, a group that helps raise money for Hispanic congressional candidates, are incomplete without Napolitano’s homemade salsa and fresh-from- California chorizo.

Napolitano is proud of her cooking and is happy that she can provide displaced Californians and Texans accustomed to Tex-Mex cooking a little taste of home away from home.

“At BOLD PAC weekly meetings over at Tortilla Coast, I bring chorizo and I bring salsa, and boy they dive into it,” Napolitano said of her colleagues. “They are so happy to see it. And this is because this reminds them of home.”