The first meal of the day was really more of a snack.
It was 7:30 a.m. in late July at Andrews Air Force Base, and 16 members of the White House press corps were boarding a charter plane that would take us on a three-day campaign swing to Reno, Nev.; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and New Orleans. Laid across the armrests of Row 4 were trays piled high with sliced fresh fruit, a pyramid of milk cartons, juice and yogurt. Across the aisle, the bad carbs: bagels, muffins, jelly-filled doughnuts. Single-serving tubs of cream cheese and butter — every morsel billed to our employers through the White House Travel Office.
I've learned that you have to move quickly to partake of this first offering of food, because the flight attendants pack it away in the overhead bins almost as soon as we find our seats. I've also learned that it's okay to miss a meal on these trips, because there will always be another. And another.
Sure enough, the second meal of the day arrived about 20 minutes into our five-hour flight to Nevada.
"Would you care for breakfast today?" the flight attendant leaned in to ask. "We've got three choices: a sausage frittata with turkey bacon and hash browns, French toast or a bagel with lox."
My companion across the aisle, Jeff Goldman of CBS News, opted for the lox — a great heaping pile of it — with two bagels, enough to feed four. I chose the eggs but skipped the potatoes.
I needed to pace myself. By the end of the day, there would be six meals offered.
"We're going to finish what we started," President Barack Obama likes to say toward the end of his speeches. Maybe so, Mr. President. But on the campaign trail, always leave food on your plate.
Food on the road is something of an obsession for traveling journalists. We talk endlessly about how much food we're served, when our next meal will come, how surprisingly delicious the Mexican spread was two stops back. Flight attendants walk past with trays of cake, cookies, chips and candy or wrapped sandwiches for us to take off the plane. In New Orleans, it was beignets on the bus to the House of Blues, where the president attended a fundraiser.
All of us are haunted by the prospect of gaining 20 pounds before November. I've packed on 5 in a single swing before, and Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News told me she gained 20 pounds in 2008 (and allowed me to say so in this story only on the condition that I also note that she'd lost 20 since January).
We talk about the horror that our cellphone calorie counters would reveal if we were honest about keeping track. But again and again, we are drawn to the buffet spreads, snack baskets and cheese platters to make it through these grinding days, which veer between stress and boredom as we rush to file, tweet and post Instagram photos, then idle for hours during security sweeps and private fundraisers closed to the media.
"I don't know if I'm hungry again. Or anymore," mused Mike Memoli of the Chicago Tribune to no one in particular as he eyed the grilled-chicken-and-wild-rice buffet at the back of another holding room at another convention center. This one was in Portland, Ore., where Obama would address about 900 supporters.
"I had breakfast," Memoli said. "I had two cookies. I have to think about it in my head. How much have I eaten? Do I have any right to be hungry?"
His voice faded away. And then he walked over to the chafing dishes to take a closer look.
Paying their way
Lest anyone think the taxpayers are on the hook for all this bounty: No. Our news organizations pay the bill for the charter plane, the food, sometimes even the event space we use. The White House travel managers make the arrangements for us, negotiating with charter companies, local caterers and restaurants. They are mindful of cost in these lean economic times. But they continue to provide plenty of food to accommodate several dozen journalists operating on different deadlines and not always able to eat at the same time.
"We do what we can to make traveling a little easier for the press," said White House spokesman Nick Papas.
(Reporters following Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also get inundated with grub, although there's some grumbling about being all too familiar with the sight of a stack of sandwiches from Jimmy John's waiting on their press bus. One of the franchise owners, Tim Wulf, is a Romney supporter.)
Campaign operatives have a motive for keeping reporters sated, as Chris Lehane, press secretary for Al Gore during the Democrat's 2000 presidential campaign, readily acknowledged.
"A well-fed press corps is generally a happy press corps," said Lehane, now a consultant.
There is something of a good-natured arms race among the White House advance teams who fan across the country to arrange the care and feeding of the traveling press corps. They shoot for quality as well as fun, in Reno offering up In-N-Out burgers (a favorite of one of the staff members) and a memorable Mexican spread from a local restaurant, Los Compadres.
"Don't ever say I didn't do anything for you guys," said a White House advance person after wheeling a cart into our filing center loaded with boxes of Voodoo Doughnuts, a Portland institution offering such jaw-aching varieties as maple-glazed with bacon, Froot Loops, Tang and Oreo Cookie.
It might as well have been a car wreck barreling past, because we were horrified but couldn't peel our eyes away. I somehow resisted the urge to gobble one, but Politico's Darren Samuelsohn succumbed and said the maple-bacon was magnificent.
"I think the entire press corps should be ashamed," declared Helene Cooper of the New York Times after the Voodoo feeding frenzy had subsided.
"God didn't make doughnuts to put snickerdoodles and bacon on them."