Cheap eats

Spend a few million city dollars on a dubious flood-control plan or an arena for sports team owners, and The Dallas Morning News will call you a visionary. Spend a few bucks on a chewy omelet and fruit plate, and beware its wrath.

Is it just Buzz, or are someone's priorities out of whack?

We're talking about recent News reports concerning the cost of feeding and entertaining city council members. The first came last week, when the daily reported, somewhat tritely, that the estimated $51,000 the city spent for the council inauguration "raised some eyebrows."

Kimberly Tolbert, assistant to the city manager, says the actual total once all the invoices were tallied came closer to $47,000 or $48,000 for a breakfast, the inauguration, and a reception at Fair Park Music Hall attended by approximately 1,100 people. About $14,500 of that was for food and beverages.

That comes out to about $13 a head just for catering, or $43 for the whole shebang, including gifts, decorations, party favors, and such. (Buzz's gift idea: a T-shirt that reads "My mom/dad got elected to city council, and all I got was this stupid arena.") Tolbert says the city staff and security who worked at the event were mostly on regular duty hours, so overtime costs should be minimal. Decorations, flowers, invitations, and programs were the other major expenses. (Nearly $11,000 went for "scenery/draping," according to a breakdown provided by Tolbert. Maybe the city should have saved on food and let the council chew the scenery. They're good at it.)

Is the total a lot of money for a shindig? Beats us. Our idea of a party generally consists of chips and a keg chilling in an ice-filled trash can. Fancy parties include chicken wings and tequila shots -- bring your own tequila. So we consulted with a staff member here who is planning a catered bat mitzvah for her daughter.

"You can't get a Popsicle for that," she said, a touch bitterly. "Will the city cater my party?"

For further comparison, we called the Dallas Bar Association's Belo Mansion, which offers food and party services through an independent caterer. There, for $25 per person, not counting drinks and hall rental, you get two hors d'oeuvres, two pastas, a carving station, a salmon display, and a fruit, vegetable, and cheese display. (No chicken wings.) Granted, it cost more, but that sounded pretty tasty to Buzz. And that, we think, is why all those city council eyebrows were raised over the inauguration. It didn't cost too much. The food stunk. (Let's face it, these people aren't shy about spending your money.)

First, there was the inauguration breakfast: Starbucks coffee and plain omelets.

The omelets were "pretty rubbery and cold," one invitee told Buzz. "There was something inside them -- something brown -- but I didn't know what it was. Maybe bread crumbs."

The breakfast also offered slices of breakfast ham and "baskets of cold little muffins and little biscuits," plus "a little toothpick with four pieces of very soggy fresh fruit.

"That was it. It would have been perfectly have fresh fruit and muffins," which is the sort of continental breakfast council members and guests eat on Wednesdays before regular meetings.

Later in the day, at the reception, attendees feasted on finger sandwiches, petit fours -- that's a fancy kind of Hostess snack cake to persons in Buzz's class -- and what one person told us tasted like canned fruit drink.

Obviously the city didn't kill the fatted calf for the new council, and as Michael Saul, the Morning News' City Hall food critic, reported this week, council members are accustomed to eating well. Sometimes they even get lobster tails during lunches provided by the council kitchen during meetings, he wrote in another Morning News exposé of the council's profligate spending.

The average cost of city lunches provided to the council members is eight whole dollars, presumably more during lobster madness, though the story notes with a straight face that the lobster is "bought on sale." We've eaten at City Hall. It's probably fried and covered in ketchup.

Which, we figure, would explain some of the nastier exchanges at the council horseshoe: It's dyspepsia.

Buzz sympathizes. Looking over the News party and culinary coverage at City Hall the past week, our own stomach has turned a bit. It's not that we mind the News poaching on Buzz's turf and taking cheap potshots at the council -- the more the merrier. (Though not even Buzz is that cheap. We figure even the Dallas City Council is worth an eight-buck lunch.) What has our acid churning is that we've been forced into the unpleasant position of agreeing with Mayor Ron Kirk, who asked Saul in his latest opus, "Don't you have anything better to write about?"

Good question.

Nevertheless, we suspect some of you may disagree. Councilwoman Barbara Mallory Caraway, who defended the council's menu to the News, suggested that anyone who doesn't want the council to eat on the city dollar should send her a message: "Don't feed my council member." Buzz has a better idea. Send your message, along with any recipes or menu suggestions for the council, to Buzz -- via e-mail to [email protected] or regular mail to Buzz, P.O. Box 190289, Dallas, Texas 75219. We'll pass them on to Caraway.

— Compiled from staff reports by Patrick Williams