In a cramped kitchen in the White House basement, assistant chef John Moeller is dyeing 7,800 Easter eggs a brilliant violet and in the process, helping the White House return to normal.
His fingers stained blue, Mr. Moeller and his crew of six were up at sunrise on Friday, boiling, dyeing, cooling and then crating thousands of eggs for use in today's annual egg roll. The biggest public event at the White House, it is expected to draw 35,000 scrambling children and their parents, as well as a personal appearance by the president and first lady.
Just a few months ago, however, it was far from clear that the egg roll, in which children push colored, hard-boiled eggs along the grass with a big spoon, would even take place. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the White House shut its wrought-iron gates to the public. Tours were cancelled. So was the highly popular viewing of the White House Christmas decorations.
"It's been sad and lonely in here without the voices of Americans," Laura Bush said earlier this year.
Bit by bit, though, the "people's house" is opening to regular people again.
After stepping up security, the White House cracked open the gates in February to allow organized school tours. Participants even kids must provide date-of-birth and Social Security numbers to their representatives in Congress, who organize the visits.
While there are no plans to re-open the residence to general tours, the White House is trying to be more accommodating with crowds outside the mansion, which are easier to deal with from a security point of view. Later this month, for instance, visitors will be allowed to stroll the White House grounds during the annual spring garden tour.
In keeping with the outdoors strategy, the Easter Egg roll weather permitting is the first public event at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since Sept. 11.
"The Easter Egg roll is a long tradition, enjoyed by thousands of people in the Washington area, and if we found a way to do it in a safe manner, we were going to proceed," says Anne Womack, White House spokesperson.
The tradition dates back to President Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1878, he welcomed the city's children after they had been barred from their Easter Monday egg-rolling on the grounds of Congress by lawmakers tired of the Hill being used as a playground.
The open White House is itself an American tradition, and speaks to a nation that rejected a king for a democratically elected president. In Theodore Roosevelt's time, for instance, everyone from journalists to businessmen would queue up on weekends for a chance to talk things over with the president.
"You would simply get in line much like the dentist's office, where the door opens and the voice says, 'next,' " says John Kessel, a political-science professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.
This weekend, Americans stood in line to get timed-entry tickets to the egg roll. The best shift is the early one, when the first couple is out on the lawn.
Perhaps the kids will have a chance to pet Barney and Spotty, the first doggies. Barney, a Scottish Terrier, has a reputation for mischief. At Christmas he delighted in eating the artificial snow that decked the White House halls.
If the children don't see the frisky Barney in person, (or rather, in dog) they can view a 25 lb., life-sized chocolate replica in the East Room. But its creator, pastry chef Roland Mesnier, says the masterpiece which sports a Stetson hat is not for eating.