CHARLOTTE, N.C. There was a great dinner served in SouthEnd recently.
Oysters three ways. Seared ahi tuna. Cognac and white truffle sauce on a meat loaf with foie gras and wild mushrooms.
Only four people got to eat it. And the timing was odd – 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon.
There’s been a lot of that going on as preparations for the Democratic National Convention rushed to the finish.
Officially, the convention doesn’t open until Tuesday. But it really starts Sunday, with an unusual plan to welcome 6,000 delegates with 12 parties all over Charlotte – and beyond.
Traditionally, political conventions welcome delegates with a big party. At the Republican National Convention in Florida, Tropical Storm Isaac didn’t wash out the welcome Aug. 26 at Tropicana Field. From the beginning, though, the Charlotte in 2012 host committee wanted to do it differently. Instead of one party, there are 12, at historic mansions to museums.
Instead of putting its best foot forward, Charlotte is starting out with a chorus line.
Pop art in your mouth
DNC organizers say they want to give visitors a wider look at Charlotte, and they want to spread the business, giving more caterers, event planners and entertainers a slice of the economic pie. Money for the parties came from the host committee, which has refused to provide details of fundraising.
“I wouldn’t say (the budget) is overly generous,” said Mary Tribble, the host committee’s chief of event planning. “We’re all being very creative. But we’re entertaining well over 6,000 people. So it’s not cheap as well.”
At that Tuesday tasting several weeks ago at Best Impressions Caterers in SouthEnd, owner Dave Byron was rolling out a playful menu he’ll serve at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art to delegates from Kentucky, Oklahoma, Indiana, the U.S. Virgin Islands and abroad.
Playing off the museum’s mid-20th century art collection, event planner Jennifer Wouters got the idea to do a pop-art theme, with food inspired by early 1960s convenience-kitsch.
She and Byron came up with gourmet twists, like lobster potpie, a miniature TV dinner with that tricked-out meat loaf, even miniature “Tang Meringue” tarts.
“Convenience food, evolved,” Byron calls it.
Is it barbecue?
The Bechtler party is very different in its lack of Southern touches. At most other parties, we heard a lot about dressed-up fried green tomatoes, ham biscuits and barbecue. Of course, there are all sorts of interpretations of what “barbecue” means. (Barbecue “indigenous to the area,” one planner answered cagily when we pressed for details.)
At Historic Rosedale Plantation, delegates from Florida, Mississippi and Alabama will get “19th century with a Southern twist,” said planner Rhonda Caldwell: A corn-roasting station, barbecue sliders and ice cream in Mason jars, with activities that will include sack races, horseshoes and croquet.
There will be local touches, like the locally raised beef brisket and Krispy Kreme bread pudding at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Gaston County, and the Harvest Moon food truck at the Carolina Raptor Center.
There will certainly be local history: At the NASCAR Hall of Fame, planner Emily Morrow plans to use the three levels to present three regions of North Carolina, from beach music on one floor to moonshine on another and, of course, barbecue on another.
“A lot of people coming don’t have an initial impression (of Charlotte) other than flying through our airport,” said Tribble. “We have a funk and an edge.”
Over at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, delegates from California, Alaska, Idaho and Montana will get passes good for all the things like rafts and zip lines. But no one really thinks they’ll get much use.
“What they’re there to do is have a cocktail, click a glass, have a conversation,” said event planner Carrie McCament. “The point is for them to network and talk.”
‘Telling the story of Charlotte’
What do the parties have in common? All the planners and caterers repeat some version of this when you ask what they’re aiming to do: “We’re telling the story of Charlotte and the South.”
“The story we’re trying to tell is that we are the face of the New America; we’re the face of the future,” said planning chief Tribble. “We embrace our Southern roots, but we do so in a contemporary way with an urban edge.”
Planners were instructed to focus on Charlotte and the South, not the homes of the delegations. Delegations weren’t consulted or asked to approve party plans.
“They’re our guests,” said Tribble. Their input was “probably not a lot more than if you invited some friends over for dinner. You’d accommodate special needs, but other than that, your guests accept what you do for them.”
Michael Pazyniak of Lighthouse Creative Works, based in Washington, D.C., laughed when we asked about what kinds of instructions the planners were given.
Pazyniak teamed with local planner Anne Markey for the party that’s expected to be the most closely watched: The Mint Museum uptown, for the key states of Ohio, Illinois, Hawaii, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
At their tasting for the host committee, one of the dishes planned by Pazyniak’s caterer, La-Tea-Da’s, was a homemade version of a tater tot with truffle and a chipotle ketchup.
The menu was accepted, with one caution: “They made sure we knew – the ketchup has to be Heinz for the Pennsylvania people.”