There are no words.
For a writer, that’s almost impossible: not having the words to describe something, but tonight, as I sit on the final leg of my flight back to Providence, I am at a complete loss for words as I try to even begin describing our trip to Washington DC these last two days.
Some words that have come to mind don’t even touch it, but here they are (and Caroline has helped me with some of them as she sits next to me on the plane, looking over my shoulder):
Overwhelming (in a good way).
And fast–so fast.
As this trip was approaching, I tried to imagine in my mind just what it would be like.
I didn’t even come close. The images I came up with didn’t even come close to what it was like in real life. It was 36 hours of my life that I will never, ever forget for as long as I live.
The feeling after it ended was similar to the way I felt after my wedding: elated, exhausted, and wondering if I’d remember everything that took place.
I know that everyone is most interested in the Kids’ State Dinner at the White House, so that’s where I will start today, working backwards as I show and tell for you the events of our trip.
So sit back and try to envision everything I’m about to tell you. I will try not to leave anything out.
We arrived by two tourist-type busses at 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue at about 9:30 am. We were full of nervous excitement, all 54 kids and their moms, dads or grandparents. Although it had only been less than 24 hours since most of us had met, we already had a bond that seemed for many of us like we’d known each other much longer.
We filed out of our bus and through the gates, walking towards the security checkpoints. There were several and it was a very serious mood that prevailed during the security checks. There were metal detectors, dogs, and many photo ID checks.
When we finished, we lined up outside the White House doors in order by state. We were number 43, behind Puerto Rico and in front of South Carolina.
As we got closer to the doors to the White House, the most beautiful music could be heard. When we entered we realized that it was live music, specifically, harp and flute or maybe piccolo music being played for our entrance. It was so beautiful and we felt so elegant, so grand, so special.
We walked in, trying to take in the splendor of the White House as much as we could. There were paintings of presidents on every wall as well as framed photo collages on the walls as we walked. There were military men and women every few feet, greeting us.
At our first stop we received two little envelopes. Our names were on them in red calligraphy. They had the raised gold seal which we’ve now seen several times, but still gives me goose bumps every time I receive a new one. These were our place cards to tell us what table we were at: Table 12.
At our next stop we were announced by an announcer with a big, booming voice, just the way they announce people at the “real” State Dinners: “Miss Caroline Cowart- Rhode Island, Egg White Omelet with Broccoli and Cheese, and Ms. Jennifer Cowart”
When we entered that room there must have been 100 reporters and photographers staring at us, smiling. We stopped, smiled, waved, and then kept going. Someone in the front row said, “Yes, you’re the celebrities now,” and it really did feel like it.
From there, we entered a sort of kids’ cocktail hour. There were fancy lemonade and juice types of drinks in cute little glasses and bottles with tons of pretty fruit arrangements almost too pretty to eat. There was an entertainer making really cool balloon animals, crowns, and just about anything you could imagine. Caroline scored a Roadrunner and instantly named him Rhody, in honor of our little state. He was purple and he almost made it home with us, until we had to go through security at the airport in DC. Then Rhody’s day was over.
While we watched the balloon guy doing his crazy tricks, Caroline spotted a star. Reed Alexander, who played the role of Nevel Papperman from Nickelodeon’s iCarly was sauntering around the party himself, just hanging out and taking photos with kids.
Yup, just standing there among us. Crazy.
Also present and up for photos was Sam Kass, White House Chef and one of the judges of the contest. He had a super personality and we spent some time with him when we toured the gardens as well.
Finally, it was time to get in line again. It was time for the photos with Mrs. Michelle Obama. It was the moment we had all been waiting for.
We lined up and waited.
Just when we thought we’d moved up to the room where the photos were going to be, we realized that it was actually the room before the room. So we waited some more, but it seemed to move fast, now that we were closer.
“She’s quite the hugger,” said one of the security guards in the waiting room. “So don’t be surprised if she gives you a big hug.”
Good to know.
I peered in.
“She’s tall,” I said.
“She’s tall and she’s not afraid to wear some big heels too.”
I looked in again.
“I love her shoes,” I said.
And suddenly, before we knew it, we were being announced again in that same loud booming voice, and there standing before us was Michelle Obama, arms outstretched.
Caroline was announced first and went in first, into the welcoming arms and big hug of Mrs. Obama.
I followed her.
I hugged Michelle Obama. I squeezed her. I didn’t want to let go. She was beautiful, with a warm and inviting personality that just exuded from her.
She greeted us and told Caroline how happy she was to see us, and how excited she was for the events of the day.
The professional photographers snapped our photo about a half dozen times (we had no personal belongings or cameras with us in the room) and we were done, moving into the dining room.
I was again, unprepared for what I saw next. Again, it exceeded my wildest imagination.
The dining room was huge with gorgeous chandeliers and rich, yellow draperies. And there were again, hundreds of reporters and photographers. All you could hear were cameras snapping as they filled two walls of the room, three people deep on both sides. I looked around the room and it was so, so surreal. That’s the best way I can explain it.
The tables were set up for us with gorgeous red presidential place settings. This had been one of my ponderings these past few weeks: what would the dishes look like? They were gorgeous.
They had beautiful place cards at our tables written in red but lined in gold. We had a copy of the Winning Lunches Cookbook on each of our plates as well as a menu stating what we’d be eating for lunch and what state winner it had come from. We were thrilled to find out that one of our new friends from Kansas, Rori, was having her meal featured as the main dish: Yummy Cabbage Sloppy Joes.
There were Kale Chips from New York, which tasted just like potato chips, as an appetizer.
The little added touches made all the difference: pretty centerpieces made of fruits and flowers, a map with our state on it in front of our spot, a “Let’s Move” bracelet as our napkin ring around our white linen napkins.
When we were all in and all seated, Michelle Obama was announced. She walked right by our table. I was still star-struck even though we’d just met her and hugged her.
Tanya Steel Editor In Chief at Epicurious, spoke at the podium first, followed by Marshall Reid, the 12 year old co-author of the book, “Portion Size Me.”
Finally, Mrs. Obama spoke.
I can’t even tell you what she said, specifically, but it included lots of congratulations and warm words, how proud she was of every winner there and the family members with them for entering, for winning, for promoting healthy eating among families. She was a wonderful speaker, happy and fun. Whatever she was selling, I was buying it.
The food was served. We had Quinoa, Black Bean and Corn salad from Arizona, which was my first time eating quinoa, and I loved it. Caroline loved it too. We both finished it down to the last drop. We both took pictures of our plates.
Waiters came around pouring juices for us, Caroline had orange and I had cranberry. Our water was served in pretty little mason jars with pixie straws. I hated to use them, they were so cute.
The main dish came out, Rori’s Yummy Cabbage Sloppy Joes along with North Carolina’s Baked Zucchini Fries. They were both fabulous and again Caroline and I found ourselves photographing our empty plates.
Suddenly, however, Michelle Obama jumped up and quickly went back to the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “I’m sorry for this interruption but I have an announcement. I’ve just gotten word that a special visitor is on his way in to say hello to you.”
And then I jumped up and out of my seat.
I am a journalist at heart I guess.
I was the only one standing at that moment, well, it was me and Michelle.
Obama that is.
My new BFF.
Good thing I was on my feet, because in walked the President of the United States.
And suddenly we were ALL on our feet.
To say we were astounded doesn’t even cover it.
You should have heard the cameras snapping.
I can still hear it.
He went to the podium. They hugged. (So cute.)
He spoke to us and again, although I can’t remember each and every word (I was wishing I had a notebook and pen) he was proud. His words were congratulatory. He said he can make a decent omelet and I thought of Caroline’s recipe. I bet he’d like it. He spoke for quite a few minutes and then as he finished and we all cheered and clapped, he headed over to our side of the room to exit.
Or so I thought.
No. He didn’t leave. He stayed and shook EVERY SINGLE hand in the room. Every single one of us, both children and adults got a greeting, a handshake, tons of photos, and oftentimes a “Good Job” or a “Congratulations, what was your recipe?”
I was shaking. My hands were shaking. My whole body was shivering. I was on sensory overload between the food, the cameras snapping and the fact that in one hour’s time I’d met both the President and First Lady of the United States and here I was putting food into my mouth as if this was pretty much a normal course of events in my daily life.
Caroline leaned over.
“I’m shaking,” she said.
I hear ya.
Just when you think it can’t get any better than that, it did.
What’s that saying on infomercials, “But Wait, There’s More!”
And there was.
As we had our Summer Fruit Garland from South Dakota and our Strawberryana Smoothies from Hawaii, the kids were treated to a LIVE performance by the Nickelodeon band, Big Time Rush. They played about five different songs and the kids all sat on the floor in front of the stage, listening and watching.
I watched Caroline and I thought, “I can never, ever top this experience. Not for her, not for any of my other children. Not in my lifetime.
It was a crazy, crazy feeling of just the utmost, tip top, experience ever.
Overwhelming (in a good way).
And fast–so fast.
*Check back tomorrow for a recap from more of our whirlwind trip to DC!*