WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor paused briefly Wednesday night during the last hectic month of the term to dish about an unlikely topic: food.
Specifically, they participated in a panel discussion at the Smithsonian exploring the history of food and culture at the Supreme Court, and in doing so revealed not only how the court uses meal times to build bonds, but also the peculiar gastronomic habits of some modern-day justices.
Although in the days of Chief Justice John Marshall the justices would gather together for meals at a boarding house, today they meet regularly in an elegant conference room for lunch. The motivation is the same: They use meal times to know one another better.
But there’s a golden rule, according to Sotomayor: No one can discuss ongoing cases. They avoid controversial topics, she said, but discuss museum exhibits, music and books.
Ginsburg noted she doesn’t participate when the conversation turns to sports.
The “real” sportsperson is Elena Kagan, Sotomayor said Wednesday night at the event sponsored by the National Museum of American History and the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Besides the lunches the justices gather for celebrations such as birthdays. There is some singing, despite the fact, according to Ginsburg, that not many of them can “carry a tune.”
There are meals to welcome a new justice, and retirement parties — and the one for Sandra Day O’Connor is still fondly remembered. O’Connor insisted she didn’t want a party, so Justice David Souter came up with the idea of having her pick any movie she would like to see. She chose “Red River” with John Wayne. “It had every politically incorrect thing in it.. it was sexist…it was racist,” Ginsburg said.
Sometimes the justices bring food to the Court. Ginsburg spoke of how the late Justice Antonin Scalia was an “intrepid hunter” who would bring his colleagues everything from “fish to fowl.” O’Connor brought beef jerky made by her brother. (“It was very spicy,” Ginsburg offered.)
She repeated the story of how Justice Anthony Kennedy has been known to bring fancy wines to the dinner some of the justices share before attending the State of the Union, which causes her, on occasion, to get sleepy during the President’s speech.
Sotomayor, a diabetic, keeps candy in her office for her guests. She noted that they “come to talk to me more” if they know there is candy to be had.
Neither justice bragged of any outstanding culinary skills. In fact, Ginsburg allowed that her late husband, Marty Ginsburg, who was a gourmet chef, “began his fondness in the kitchen, I think, shortly after I made my first meal.”
Ginsburg said her daughter phased her out of the kitchen at an early age when she learned the difference between “mommy’s cooking and daddy’s.” Sotomayor enjoys cooking, believes that “eating is sacred,” but has never mastered Puerto Rican fare.
Other justices order salad from the cafeteria, or pack a lunch.
“My dear colleague David Souter,” Ginsburg said, with a hint of distaste, ate one thing for lunch most days: plain yogurt.
“I understood,” Sotomayor said, “he had an apple.”
Yes, Ginsburg replied. Often later in the day.
Sotomayor added: “He ate the core.”