There are many routes to a White House state dinner. The obvious one is to get elected or be married to someone who is elected. You might get appointed to a cabinet position or be a visiting head of state. Some people have been known to scam a seat at the table. But one nine-year-old from Manhasset took a different approach. He cooked his way there.
Peter Murphy, who in his other life is a baseball-loving fourth-grader at Shelter Rock Elementary, is now a veteran of a state dinner in the East Room at the White House. On July 9, 2013, he shook hands with the president of the United States and had a chat with First Lady Michelle Obama, navigated the multiple forks, knives and spoons of a fancy meal and generally had himself a wonderful time. And he got there by submitting the winning recipe from New York in the 2013 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge contest.
His entry, “Super Rescue Soup,” was inspired by his family’s Hurricane Sandy experience.
“During Hurricane Sandy we had no power,” Peter explains during a recent visit to his home. “Everything was literally shut down, and it was cold.” But the family was able to find a farm stand and loaded up on vegetables. They needed something that would work on a stove top. “I said, ‘Hey! Maybe we could make a soup!’” says Peter. Super Rescue Soup, with fresh vegetables, beans and barley was born. And they remembered that soup when Peter’s mom, Jill, saw the contest on Epicurious.
“I remembered how good it was,” says Peter, who, despite a weakness for chocolate chips, has always been an adventurous and healthy eater, according to his mom. “I also remembered it had whole grain for protein.”
The first lady’s Let’s Move! initiative and Epicurious got together to organize the second Healthy Lunchtime Challenge. Winners were selected from over 1,300 entries, which were evaluated in Washington, D.C., by a panel of judges that included Let’s Move! executive director; assistant White House chef Sam Kass; Epicurious editor-in-chief Tanya Steel; representatives from the USDA and the Department of Education; two children who recently graduated from Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program; and D.C. Central Kitchen’s Michael F. Curtin Jr., whose organization prepared the food for tasting.
The judging criteria were consistent with new government nutritional guidelines (ChooseMyPlate.gov):
- • Nutritional value of the recipe—50 percent. Making half the plate or recipe fruit-and-vegetable based, and incorporating lean proteins and low-fat dairy and whole grains into the recipe and/or dish
- • Perceived taste—25 percent
- • Creativity and originality—15 percent
- • Affordability—5 percent
- • The story behind the recipe—5 percent
In the second round of judging, the potential winners’ recipes were prepared in a test kitchen, and judges re-judged the potential winners’ entries based on the above criteria but now taking into account the results of the recipe test preparation. From the 50 states and 4 territories, 54 winners were chosen.
The prize was a trip to Washington, D.C., including free round-trip flights and hotel accommodations for the winning child and parent or legal guardian (Peter took his mom) plus attendance at the 2013 Kids’ “State Dinner,” hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Before the dinner, there were activities for all the kids and their companions, like a tour of the Smithsonian’s FOOD: The Exhibition, including Julia Child’s kitchen. Afterward they toured the White House organic garden and beehives.
Peter says the dinner, which offered a menu of selected recipes from the contest winners, was an amazing experience. “When we got there, everything looked fancy, and they took pictures,” he recalls. “There was a balloon man. Then we had appetizers. Michelle Obama said things. Then the Epicurious lady said some stuff. Then we had the main meal. Then Michelle Obama said some more stuff. Then President Obama came in and said, ‘Sorry I crashed the party,’ and he shook hands with everyone. Then Rachel Crow sang, and everybody danced, and it was fun.”
He gives the dinner a 10. “It was so good!” he says.
Now back at home, Peter, who began cooking at the age of two at a cooking class, says a few things have changed since his White House adventure.
“Ever since we won that contest, I started making breakfast every day,” he says. His “Country Frittata,” with eggs, bacon, parsley and cheese, sounds particularly luscious, but he is also experimenting with whole grain, buckwheat and fruit pancakes (chocolate chips do seem to make their way in there) and other egg dishes as well as pestos. He is handy with a knife but says, “I hate cutting onions.”
He’s also learned to navigate the media through his appearances on local news stations, but he seems more concerned about whether his baseball team is going to try out his recipe than the fact that he was in People magazine in August. He was invited to do a food demonstration at a Westchester fair, but when asked whether he would like a career in food, he is hesitant.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “But I am positive I want to play Major League Baseball.”
In fact, that chat with Mrs. Obama? All about baseball camp, the Yankees and Derek Jeter, who Mrs. O proclaimed to like, too.
SUPER RESCUE SOUP
Makes 6 servings
½ cup dried cannellini beans or 1 (15-ounce) can, drained and rinsed
½ cup pearl barley
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, scrubbed and finely chopped
2 medium stalks celery, finely chopped
1 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut into ½- inch pieces
¾ cup green beans, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 russet potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
½ cup tomato sauce or one medium tomato, chopped
½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1. If using dried beans, soak them overnight or do a quick soak (boil for 2 minutes, then remove them from the heat and let soak for 1 hour).
2. In a medium saucepan over moderate heat, cover the presoaked beans with 2 inches of water and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Add 1¼ cup water, bring to a boil, then add the barley. Lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes. Set aside.
(If using canned beans, wait to add them to the soup until step 4.)
3. In a large saucepan over moderate heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion, carrots and celery, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and green beans and sauté until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the potato and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes.
4. Add 6 cups of water and the tomato sauce, raise the heat, and bring the soup to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the beans and barley and continue to simmer for 5 more minutes. Season with salt, and purée with an immersion blender, if desired.