The President and the Faregrounds
by: John Stanton
The woman on the other end of the phone wanted to know if she could order a takeout Thanksgiving dinner. She said her husband would pick it up when it was ready. Sure enough, the woman’s husband showed up, with his two sons, to pick up the food.
This is a story about how a sort of friendship grew from that very ordinary act of calling in a takeout order. It is ordinary in that Faregrounds Restaurant is that kind of place. The owners know their customers by their first names and the place is casual and local. Takeout orders are simply part of its everyday business.
It is extraordinary only in the fact that the man who picked up that takeout order two decades ago is now president of the United States.
“I didn’t even know who he was, to tell you the truth,” said Bill Puder, who owns Faregrounds with his wife, Kim. He was in the kitchen cooking lunch orders when the call came in. It became a routine on Thanksgiving for the woman to call and order some lobsters and a traditional turkey dinner.
And then one day, on the television behind the bar, a U.S. senator was being interviewed.
“I saw him on the news and thought, ‘oh my God, I know that guy’,” Puder said.
In his memoir, “Promise me, Dad,” Biden writes that his family began coming to the island for
Thanksgiving in 1975. You will not have to look very far to find somebody here with a Joe Biden story. He has taken a frozen swim as part of the annual library fundraiser called the Cold Turkey Plunge. He stops for random conversations on Main Street.
His oldest son Beau proposed to his wife Hallie during the lighting of the Christmas tree in front of Pacific Bank in 2001. They were married at St. Mary’s.
The Bidens always snapped an annual family photograph at the Sconset house called “Forever Wild,” until one year it was swept away by erosion and the power of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Jill and I first saw the house in 1975, when it was for sale. The asking price then had been too rich for a senator’s salary,” Biden wrote.
In 2014, Biden was vice president. Beau had already been diagnosed with the brain tumor from which he would not recover. During that Thanksgiving on Nantucket the two Biden brothers sat down with their father and convinced him to run for president.
Bill Puder says Biden is “very down to earth, nice and polite, very kind” and “really a normal kind of guy.” He said it is “really an honor” to have cooked the family’s Thanksgiving dinner for the last 22 years.
“At one point he started coming to the back door to pick up his food,” Puder said. “One time I asked him if he was going to run for president. As he was leaving, he said, ‘Bill, you’re the first guy to know. Yes, I am. I’m putting my name into the hat’.”
Biden ran for president twice before becoming vice president. Campaigning sometimes got in the way of island Thanksgivings.
“Even when they were at the Iowa caucuses, Jill Biden called just to tell us that they would not be here for Thanksgiving,” Kim Puder said. “I thought, ‘You’re at the Iowa caucuses and your worried about Faregrounds?’ But that’s the way they are.”
Kim Puder calls Biden “a good customer.” She understands the value of good customers. On many nights you can find her stopping at tables for a quick chat. She and Bill have the kind of personalities that put people at ease. They see the same thing in Biden’s personality.
As Biden went from senator to vice president, as his travel to the island turned from the Steamship Authority’s Eagle to Air Force Two, visits got complicated for security reasons, with Secret Service sweeps of the restaurant.
“It was just like the movies,” Kim said. “They all come in from both sides.”
The head of the Secret Service detail told Bill that standard operating procedure was to have a Navy SEAL watch him cook. The vice president set their minds to rest.
“He told them, ‘relax guys, this is my friend Bill.’ So, they decided there was no need for a Navy SEAL in the kitchen. Biden came in and took some photos with the guys in the kitchen. We cooked for the Secret Service and they kept coming here for lunch and dinner,” Bill Puder said.
Biden wrote that on his return to Washington from Nantucket, after that talk with his sons, he thought about the fate of that Sconset house faced with the thundering power of the Atlantic Ocean.
“I sat down on our couch, the one place in the house that felt as though it truly belonged to us, to relax and reflect,” he wrote.
“But there was an image I could not get out of my head. I kept seeing the little ‘Forever Wild’ house, undermined by the powerful indifference of nature and the inevitability of time, no longer able to hold its ground; I could almost hear the sharp crack as its moorings failed, could envision the tide washing in and out, pulling it relentlessly and remorselessly until it was adrift on the water, then swallowed up by the sea. No Thanksgiving would ever be quite the same.”
In 2016, as the Thanksgiving Day rush was winding down at Faregrounds, Bill Puder heard somebody at the back door of the kitchen.
“It’s eight at night,” he said. “I thought, ‘who the heck is coming through the back door?’ It was him. He walked into the kitchen and said, ‘Bill, I got something for you.’ He gave me his White House baseball hat.”
Puder had recently given Biden a Pudley’s Pub hat.
“Somebody working in the kitchen asked if he could take a picture. So there was Biden, taking selfies with everybody. Then he took a group shot. He was here for about 15 minutes. People at the bar were saying to each other, ‘Was that Vice President Biden?’”
The Puders went to Washington to see a football game while Biden was still vice president. They called one of his staffers to see if they could get a tour and were set up with a private tour of the Senate building, the Oval Office and the White House rose garden.
“He was out of town that day, campaigning for Obama, but his people told us that if he was in town the Bidens would have invited us over for dinner,” Bill said.
They are not certain if the new president will return to Nantucket for Thanksgiving, or if the phone will ring one afternoon in November and Jill Biden will be on the line ordering six lobsters and a turkey dinner. Or if her husband will be by to pick it up.
There is a framed note from the White House and a photo of then-Vice President Biden hanging in the entryway at Faregrounds. Bill Puder said it felt strange to get a FedEx package with a return address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.
It was sent, of course, before Biden became president, but the sentiment is clear. The handwritten note on the photo says, “See you next Thanksgiving.” ///
John Stanton is a writer, documentary filmmaker, associate editor of The Inquirer and Mirror and editor of Nantucket Today.