Kamala Harris can’t solve all her coworkers’ problems. Her powers of persuasion are impressive, but, like most elected officials, she knows how and when to pick her battles.
So she could have just thrown up her hands at this latest scandal. She had bills to write and votes to cast. A pandemic was raging. But that tuna melt. That bone-chilling, earth-shaking tuna melt. Harris, who has represented California in the Senate since 2016, has a nose for injustice (and microwaved fish), and this was an abomination. She couldn’t let it stand.
Last month, with millions of people under lockdown and the world in crisis, Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.)—with whom Harris sits on the budget and intelligence committees—hoped to lighten the virtual mood with an innocent cooking tutorial. But the tuna melt how-to that he uploaded to Instagram instead sent the nation reeling. Warner hadn’t toasted his bread. He had heaped on gobs of Hellmann’s. He didn’t even drain the water from the tuna can. And then he microwaved the entire thing for 30 seconds.
“Mark—we need to talk,” Harris tweeted in a public appeal. “Call. Please. Your friend KDH.”
Within the week, Harris invited Warner to join her for a live-streamed do-over demo. She extolled the virtues of crisp lettuce, Dijon mustard, and a proper draining technique. She wielded sharp objects. It was Harris in her element—correcting the record and wearing her Howard University apron.
Harris fell in love with cooking as a child, the daughter and granddaughter of expert cooks. Her mother, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist, would wake up on weekend mornings and get a head start on dinners for the rest of the week: meal prep, before it was a Pinterest buzzword.
“As a child, I remember hearing the pots and smelling the food, and kind of like someone in a trance, I would walk into the kitchen to see all this incredible stuff happening,” Harris says. “My mother used to tell me, ‘Kamala, you clearly like to eat good food. You better learn how to cook.’”
So Harris did, from her mother, of course, who had moved to the United States from India in her 20s, and from the woman whom Harris calls her second mother, who lived down the street. One of Harris’s earliest “little specialties,” as she puts it, was scrambled eggs, which she perfected around the third grade and liked to top with cheese cut into the shape of a smiling face.
The eggs remain one of the better metaphors for what Harris loves about cooking and food: She likes to feed people, to make them laugh, to bring them together around a table. She’s a little earnest about it! Isn’t that part of the fun? “It’s a gift that you can give people,” she says of cooking. “That’s how I was introduced to it.”
When she was running for president just a few months ago, making elaborate dinners for her loved ones was one of the things she missed most. On Sundays—barring national emergencies—Harris can be found near the stove, sometimes starting her prep work hours in advance. It’s a meditative process she can get lost in. It’s also one over which (unlike the battles she takes on in the Senate) she has more or less total control. “It’s a tradition I really care about, just having a really good home-cooked meal on a Sunday,” she says.
Women with visible platforms tend to get one chance to define themselves, and Harris’s public persona is wrapped up in her legal career. She is the person who closes the case, whose arched brows have gone viral, whose relentless line of questioning makes duplicitous men quake. As far as the reputations that a woman in a position of leadership can have, it’s better than most. But it’s limiting.
In her run for president, Harris leaned into her strengths as a prosecutor, kicking off her campaign with the slogan “Kamala Harris, For the People.” It was a powerful line with unintended consequences. Later in the race, when she and the actor and writer Mindy Kaling made masala dosa together in a campaign video, some accused her of pandering.
But Harris does feel as at home in the kitchen as she does in a courtroom. Food isn’t a bit or a P.R. push. It’s who she is. In the heat of the campaign, she emphasized to her staff that she wanted to eat in local restaurants. The meals were, sure, one more place to meet potential voters, with dishes that were a little healthier and homier than what she would have found in chains. But the stops also gave her a window into people’s lives—their tastes, their chipped dishes, their stories. Talking over food helps people open up. It’s intimate.
“I would meet the most wonderful people,” Harris says. “Like in Reno, Nevada, there was Sabrina’s [West Street] Kitchen. She had, like, 20 tables and the most incredible, small kitchen, which she showed me. It was like magic, how she’d produce the most delicious food in there. She has this thing she calls cilantro rice, and I begged her, I was like, ‘Oh, come on, give me the recipe.’ She was like, ‘Nope.’”
Harris interrupts herself to wonder how Sabrina herself is handling things, with the coronavirus forcing thousands of restaurants to pivot or close. That small kitchen—it has to be hard to navigate right now. What’s business like? Is she offering take-out? Has she applied for the relief programs that are supposed to benefit small business owners but have in fact favored the rich and powerful?
“That’s one of the things I think about, and it weighs on me, as it should on all of us,” Harris says. “What’s happening in terms of our small businesses, and in particular, our restaurants? Those restaurants in your neighborhood, where they know what you like to eat or they might just sit down with you for a minute to talk? Those businesses are hurting like you can’t believe.”
Earlier this month Harris announced the Saving Our Street Act. It’s designed to benefit local institutions, like bodegas or a beloved café with fewer than 10 employees. “It establishes a micro-business assistance fund of $125 billion [that would] provide up to $250,000 to eligible businesses,” she says. Written into the act is the requirement that 75% of the total fund be granted to business and nonprofit owners from underrepresented groups, meaning people of color and women, in particular. That would be an improvement, but it wouldn’t solve the problem at the heart of the plate.
“To be candid, one of the other pains that I’m feeling is that people aren’t just suffering, they’re hungry,” Harris says. “We’re in the middle of a real crisis in our country.” She cites a 2019 report that found that up to 40% of college students were food insecure. In some historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), like the one she attended, up to 70% of college students were food insecure. And that was before the pandemic hit.
She thinks of mothers who can’t feed their children or older people who are on their own, with no reliable access to fresh groceries. “It’s breaking my heart. And really, this issue is not getting enough attention,” she says. “People are starving in America right now.”
This is what it’s like to talk to Harris—or to follow her on Instagram, for that matter. It's a cliché now to note that the personal is political, but Harris lives it. One second she’s talking about how to make a good pork chop, and the next she’s detailing her work on the SOS Act or the FEED Act, another new piece of legislation designed in partnership with World Central Kitchen founder José Andrés. It would allow the federal government to cover 100% of the costs that states and localities incur in partnering with restaurants and nonprofits to feed vulnerable populations in a disaster like the coronavirus.
Cooking is a welcome distraction from the pressures of her job and an act of self-care, to an extent, but it also spurs her work. Harris doesn’t sit down to dinner without thinking about the people who don’t have food on their tables. And she remains conscious of food as an essential, not just something optimized for Instagram. More than once in our conversation, she emphasizes how dishes can be stretched into multiple meals. Take her signature roast chicken: “I can make three meals out of that, no problem.”
To start, she’ll mix chopped herbs, grated lemon, minced garlic, and salt and pepper. She’ll spread that under the chicken skin, sprinkle the whole bird with salt and pepper, truss it up, and let it sit in the fridge for at least 24 hours (helps the skin crisp). She’ll rub some oil or butter over it. And “then I slow roast it,” she says. “I put it in at 325°F for a couple of hours, I make a sauce out of the drippings, and we eat that for dinner. Then whatever we didn’t eat, I’ll carve that and put that aside because I’ll make chicken salad with that. So that’s two meals.”
(Am I impressed? I am. I am also, as she speaks, thinking a lot about what I should eat for lunch.)
“Then,” Harris goes on, “I take the carcass and put that in a pot of water with some carrots and celery and bay leaf and some peppercorns. If I’ve got some parsley, I’ll put that in there. And then I cook that for like four hours on the stove. I strain it, and it makes the most amazing chicken broth. I use that in soup, like a split pea, which is just delicious. And that’s three meals.”
The chef, in her element
She’s on a roll now, telling me that one of the best things to make in a pandemic is just a good pot of beans—dried, not canned. “I’m on conference calls and Zooms for hours and hours and hours,” she says. “So I’ll put the beans to soak the night before, before I go to bed. And in the morning before I have to log on, I will rinse out the beans, put them on the pot with some water, bay leaves again, and usually I’ll smash a garlic clove, and let that cook for an hour or an hour and a half. And then later I’ll figure out what to do with the beans. I’ve done hummus. I did red beans and rice recently, which was so good. I like black beans too. You can do so much with beans. And you know what’s good? My husband likes when I throw a ham hock in there when it’s cooking.”
Harris is in fact in the process of empowering her husband, Doug Emhoff, to take on more kitchen responsibilities (he’s been tasked with dinner on Wednesdays and Saturdays), and she is doubling most recipes when she does cook to stock their freezer. “Because as much as I like cooking, I have realized I can’t do it all the time,” she says. How is her husband faring? Well, the food tastes great. “It takes him about four hours to do what I do in an hour, but it is delicious so I just have to be quiet and let it happen,” she says.
Harris has been louder, of course, with her fellow senators. Not just when it comes to Warner, whom one hopes will never be so cavalier with canned fish again, or her Republican opposition, who haven’t quite leapt at the chance to join her on her latest legislative priorities, but also with her close friend Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Just a few weeks ago, Harris called Booker to wish him a happy birthday and to find out what the hell he was eating.
“He’s a vegan, but he doesn’t cook,” she says. “I said, ‘Are you figuring out how to cook?’ He was like, ‘I could use some help.’ So I FaceTimed him and I showed him how to chop an onion and how to chop a carrot and all that. And I gave him this recipe for lentils. And that was my birthday gift to him.”
Harris dreams about what she’ll make when this is over—a big pot of Bolognese, she thinks, plunked down in the middle of the table, or a recipe from one of her favorite cookbooks, most of which she left at home in California. (Her go-tos include The Art of Simple Food from Alice Waters, all of Marcella Hazan’s volumes, and the newer Jubilee from Toni Tipton-Martin.) She’ll invite all of her favorite people over. Friends will sneak bites off of each other’s plates. It’ll be Sunday, of course.
She pauses, thinking it over for a second. “Mmm,” she says, “that does sound good.”
Kamala Harris’s Cornbread Dressing
- 2 8-oz. packages of cornbread mix (I like the good, old-fashioned mix. I’m not going to do product placement here, but the name starts with a J!)
- 1 pound spicy pork sausage (I recommend hot Italian sausage.)
- 4 celery stalks, diced
- 2 onions, chopped (My husband Doug helps me with this part, as long as he gets to wear his onion goggles.)
- 2 apples, cored and chopped (Don’t forget to buy local–now is a great time for California apples!)
- ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
- ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 tsp. sage
- ½ tsp. thyme
- ½ tsp. rosemary (I grow sage, thyme and rosemary in my backyard and use that. If you have access to fresh herbs, chop them and double the amount.)
- ¾ cup chicken broth (This should be homemade, if possible. The broth I make after I roast a chicken for my family is perfect for dressing and makes great matzo ball and tortilla soup—recipes I’ll have to share with you in the future!)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Bake your cornbread according to the instructions on the package. This can be done the day before. Once it’s cooled, crumble it.
- Take the sausage out of its casing, crumble it, and brown it in a little oil. When it’s cooked, use a slotted spoon to remove it from the pan and set it aside.
- Sauté the celery, onions, and apples in the remaining oil. Cooking these in the same pan not only saves water but helps us stick to my Uncle Freddie’s rule: Wash every dish immediately after you use it!
- Mix that with the sausage, cornbread crumbs, melted butter, herbs, and chicken broth.
- Put the mixture in a baking dish and bake at 375°F for about 40 minutes.
Mattie Kahn is the culture director at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter @mattiekahn.
A few short months ago, our world was irrevocably changed. But one constant that’s remained as we’ve navigated our new normal are the everyday heroes who continue to inspire hope. All year long we’ll be celebrating the women who are stepping up and doing good—the Glamour Game Changers. Up first: 11 women who are redefining what self-care means in 2020, whether that’s organizing to donate thousands of personal-care products to the front lines or helping to keep others, stuck at home, sane.
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