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Jean Carnahan Devours New Opportunities

Political matriarch dishes about writing, dining and 2016

Jean Carnahan, John Ashcroft and Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., listen to opening statements during Ashcroft's conformation hearing for attorney general before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2001. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Jean Carnahan, John Ashcroft and Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., listen to opening statements during Ashcroft's conformation hearing for attorney general before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2001. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Help prop up an aspiring political dynasty or foster the perpetuation of another; so are the days of Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan’s life.  

Although she’s been out of office for more than a decade, the former lawmaker has stayed active in local and national elections, including the current presidential contest. Carnahan has formally endorsed former Senate colleague Hillary Clinton, whom she welcomed to her adopted hometown of St. Louis last winter.  

She hailed the former first lady’s laser-like focus on initiatives (think: paid parental leave, affordable child care, reproductive rights and equal pay) that affect women the world over.  

The D.C. native — born and bred in Anacostia — met her future husband, Mel Carnahan, while still in high school. His rise through the ranks of Missouri politics led to her becoming first lady of the Show-Me State, a post wrought with perils of its own.  

“Thrust upon the stage, she must improvise before an audience eager for reasons to applaud and critics ready to fault her performance,” was how she characterized the high-wire act political spouses perform in her 1998 book, “If Walls Could Talk.”  

A plane crash in 2000 killed her husband and eldest son, Roger, complicating the challenge Mel Carnahan had launched against incumbent Republican Sen. John Ashcroft. By law, Carnahan’s name had to stay on the ballot, so local leaders drafted Jean Carnahan to serve in his stead. That fall, a deceased candidate knocked off a sitting senator, a history-making moment that propelled Jean from behind the scenes to full-on player for the first time in her life.  

Carnahan spent just 20-some months in the Senate — she lost to single-term Republican Jim Talent during the special election held in late 2002 — but speaks fondly of her time on the Hill. A monthly dinner with other women senators was a career highlight.  

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, speaks to the press alongside a group of Democratic women Senators about social security reform. (CQ Roll Call File Photo) “It was an opportunity to ‘let our hair down’ and interact at a different level than we did during the work day,” she said of the collegial gatherings.  

Protocol, however, sometimes bled through.  

“I do recall eating at Hillary’s home one evening and being quietly amused when we all instinctively sat down at the dinner table in order of seniority just like we’d do at a hearing,” Carnahan shared.  

Her return to private life opened the door to literary pursuits.  

Over the past 20 years the burgeoning author has produced a variety of tomes  — “I’ve dipped my pen in a number of literary pots,” is how she put it — ranging from cookbooks and autobiographical materials to her debut novel, “The Secrets of Dawson Mills.”  

“I wrote it because of my lifelong love of storytelling, especially humorous tales,” she said of the romantic page-turner Amazon users describe as “laugh out loud funny” and “as much fun as a circus.”  

The story, which takes place in the 1970s, allowed Carnahan the opportunity to take a stroll down memory lane.  

Blogging, on the other hand, keeps her focused on the here and now.  

From 2005 to 2013 she had a hand in FiredUp Missouri, an online soapbox from which she and other contributors weigh in on politics. Carnahan said she cut ties with the site to focus on publishing projects. “I wanted to devote my energy to writing another book,” she explained.  

A year later she returned to the web — only this time she wanted to talk about something even more intimate: food.  

She launched Good Food St. Louis in 2014, serving up observations about local restaurants, cherished recipes and the history of dining.  

“Strangely, the best read posts on GoodFoodSTL are not recipes, but articles and photos of my family and our weekends of cooking and entertaining guests at our cattle farm in Rolla,” she said of the deeply personal material her followers choose to feast on.  

When folks do poke around her recipe collection (there are nearly eight dozen culinary options, ranging from chocolate pudding to spaghetti Bolognese, on the site) one of the simplest items always seems to win out.  

Basil vinaigrette was the most requested of my recipes, when I was first lady of Missouri. It’s simple to make and thoroughly addictive,” she said of the quickie, garden-fresh preparation.  

These days Carnahan tends to favor Mediterranean fare. “Anything Italian I find appealing,” she volunteered. “As well as new and exciting ways to serve vegetables.”  

Stepping out has its charms, as well, particularly if a seat within the Bengelina Hospitality Group is on the table.  

“Anything produced by chef Ben Poremba in his four restaurants — Elaia , Olio , Old Standard Fried Chicken , and Parigi — is a must for out-of-towners,” Carnahan suggested.  

In terms of everyday dining, she remains smitten with mom-and-pop Vietnamese joint Bahn Mi So #1 . “From the spring rolls to the beef pho, everything is fresh, simple, healthy and delicious,” she asserted.  

Whether she’ll ever make the leap from armchair critic to full-time restaurant reviewer remains to be seen.  

At least for now, Carnahan has plenty else on her plate.  

In addition to cheering on the Clinton campaign, Carnahan is actively involved in helping her son, former Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., mount his bid to become lieutenant governor.  

She also wants lawmakers to act on a number of languishing priorities.  

Carnahan’s wish list

  • Immigration reform
  • Campaign finance reform
  • Environmental reform
  • Economic reform
  • Help stabilize the Middle East
  • Expedite confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice

“The president and congressional leaders must find common ground in order to solve the problems and initiate the reforms needed for the good of the country,” she counseled.  

Should anyone need any additional tips from her on how the run the country, they’ll have to try and catch Carnahan between classes. She’s busy immersing herself in French history in anticipation of another foray into fiction.  

“I started on a novel that is partially set during the time of the Louisiana Purchase,” she noted.  

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