For novices, receptions provide an entree into the bounties of Capitol Hill. Veterans, however--who may have risen to salary levels where freeloading is less tempting--are embarrassed that they ever frequented the circuit, saying they now prefer to go home, walk their dog--even cook their own dinner.
"They get real boring," said Mickey Pollock, an aide to Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale). "You see the same people, eat the same things. After a while, it just becomes this routine of dressed-up finger food and small talk.
"Anyway, you can only eat so many weenies on a toothpick before you either go out of your mind or gain 20 pounds."
Nasarenko has his own version of the pilgrim's progress. "First you hit the reception circuit. Then you grow up."
When it comes to shameless reception freeloading on Capitol Hill, Russell Batson wrote the booklet.
The former congressional aide has compiled helpful hints gleaned from years of crashing hundreds of receptions in his 32-page "Eat Free in DC: A Guide to Budget-Neutral Dining."
He rates the best and worst Capitol Hill receptions, from the dizzying heights of the Louisiana Congressional Delegation party and its alligator in piquant sauce and giant shrimp, to the lowly hot dogs served by the American Council of Shopping Centers.
"You can eat like Elvis without spending a dime," Batson wrote in the popular booklet, which sells for $5.95. "What a country!"
Batson tells how to confront occasional door security. There are even grazing tips for the stand-up reception scene, such as the one-handed plate stack where you use your drink tumbler to support your plate, leaving the other hand free to work the fork.
"I was pleased to see Bill Clinton using this technique," Batson wrote, "a testament to its efficiency and capacity to provide an uninterrupted flow of very large volumes of food."
After consuming oceans of cream sauces and dips himself, Batson says the book was a natural. "I got into this conversation once about whether you could eat free every night and decided you could--with a little bit of ingenuity."
And then there are the food-mooching war stories.
"The legendary figure is Strom Thurmond," Batson said. "He's well-known for making a beeline to the jumbo shrimp, stuffing his pockets full."
Batson also has a tip on how to avoid lobbyists at receptions. "These selfish individuals will attempt to interrupt your feeding frenzy to discuss legislation," he wrote.
"If approached, try 'signing,' making frequent gestures to your food and sweeping motions in their direction. If all else fails, remember it \o7 is\f7 their food; listen to their pitch, nod and say, 'Good point.' "
But reception freeloading has its dangers. "There have been buffet tables where I was afraid of losing a finger," Batson said. "So many forks, all working at once."
The mango chutney coating the coconut shrimp glistened greasily under the direct ceiling light, bending Mark Brasher's mouth into a frown of distaste.
Brasher, a 27-year-old legislative aide to Rep. Horn, was doing the shake-and-bake--Capitol slang for shaking hands and freeloading food--at an event sponsored by the Food Distribution Industry.
For years, the former Long Beach resident lived the reception life before settling into semi-retirement, choosing only the most promising affairs.
Before him, on a table adorned with a massive flower arrangement, lay a spread of miniature pastry puffs with tarragon chicken salad, cherry tomatoes stuffed with tuna-caper mousse. There were chicken tenders with Dijonnaise sauce, miniature quiche tartlets and mushrooms stuffed with crab souffle.
"Average at best," he sniffed, moving his toothpick toward the stuffed mushrooms. "You'd think they'd do better. It's oily fat food. I mean, how long can you go on eating this?"
All around him, in the carpeted conference room lined by state flags in the basement of the Capitol, half a dozen members of Congress, staffers and a bevy of food distribution lobbyists were doing just fine scarfing down everything within their reach.
People push for second and third helpings. One man balances two plates, a wineglass and beer can, knowing he has to work fast. With the reception an hour old, the food and the crowd are thinning.
Brasher has little patience for such scenes.
While he stomachs the annual ice cream manufacturer's reception, considered a must-attend event across Capitol Hill, he draws the line at the Southern watermelon growers' bash, where scantily clad young beauty queens compete in a seed-spitting contest.
"It's a humiliating spectacle," he said. "You ask yourself, 'How could they do that?' "
The purpose of this night's event is to award several congressmen pewter statues to signify their work on issues dear to the industry.
And, of course, to eat.
Two women sneaking nibbles from their plastic plates say the tales of sumptuous food and wild reception parties are overblown. "People tell tall tales," says Charla Worsham. "Most of these things involve stale chips and sauce."