“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
– French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
I wasn’t around in Brillat-Savarin’s heyday, close to 200 years ago, but I was fortunate to hear much the same message, while a child, from the noted American, um … cartoon wheel of cheese, Timer, who revealed in a famed public-service announcement that “you are what you eat.”
Timer’s words made me hanker for a hunk of cheese and instilled in me the realization that food plays a vital role in my own self-identity, both in whether and how I relate — or fail to relate — to others. Ultimately, the foods a person chooses to eat are a window into his stomach, where Brillat-Savarin and Timer tell us a man’s soul resides.
If all of this is true of you and me, it is no doubt also true of presidential candidates, most of whom are at least partially human. It is perhaps even more true on the campaign trail, where a candidate’s every bite or sip can be both litmus test and metaphor — and where a gaffe or triumph at the lunch counter or cash register, in a kitchen or bar, can change the course of a campaign.
What a candidate’s supporters eat, meanwhile, can speak as much in a few words of the very core of both the supporter and supported as does, say, Steak-umm’s recent sponsorship of a NASCAR team. Each is what it is, and what the other is. And they are more what they are, together, because of this.
Bush and Quayle Food Fiascos Help Sink Re-Election
Food has played a role in political campaigns and careers since time immemorial. From Herbert Hoover’s “chicken in every pot” kinda-promise to Obama Girl documenting herself eating a cheese steak in Philadelphia. From jelly beans and broccoli to peanuts and Billy Beer.
I first became fascinated by the role food plays in presidential elections in 1992, when then-president George H.W. Bush, who the public perceived as out of touch with everyday America, was campaigning for a second term. Bush cemented the image when he appeared awestruck by a scanner during an appearance at a supermarket, and reinforced it when he was unable to correctly guess the price of a gallon of milk. Nor did it help Bush that his opponent, Bill Clinton, came off as an everyman who had likely committed the menus of McDonald’s, KFC, and Arby’s to heart.
Bush’s running mate, vice president Dan Quayle, fared no better, also letting a food gaffe bolster his image as a dolt. When Quayle urged, during a New Jersey campaign stop, a twelve-year old schoolboy to add an “e” to the end of the word “potato,” the press guffawed. When the boy later said the incident “showed that the rumors about the vice president are true — that he’s an idiot,” the Bush ship was all but sunk.
“Food on the campaign trail… seems inconsequential,” noted Jack Hitt in the New York Times in 2004, “yet the wizards in touch with the dark arts of internal polling know it is crucial in some primordial and awesome way.”
For all these reasons, it comes as little surprise that the eating and drinking habits of candidates and their supporters have played a crucial, if oft-overlooked, role in defining those seeking the presidency this election cycle.
Someone’s in the Kitchen, But Not The Candidates… or Their Spouses
Though it seems virtually every bake-sale attendee has at one point or another enjoyed Mamie Eisenhower’s fudge, plagiarizing an ahi tuna recipe is a whole different matter. That’s the snafu Cindy McCain, the candidate’s wife, found herself in earlier this year after someone, reportedly an overzealous campaign intern, copied recipes — including Rachal Ray’s Ahi Tuna with Napa Cabbage Slaw — from the Food Network website to that of candidate McCain. The campaign attributed their authorship to Mrs. McCain under the header “McCain Family Recipes.”
Critics pointed out not just the moral shortcomings of the recipe theft but, more importantly, the 1950s country-club qualities of the recipes, which included crab scampi, fruit mousse, and rosemary chicken breasts.
The campaign apologized and, according to the Huffington Post, removed the offending recipes. Still, all of the offending recipes seem to have since rematerialized at the McCain website, and still lack attribution. Or flavor.
While the McCain camp puts on airs when it comes to the kitchen, Dennis Kucinich and wife Elizabeth have no such problems. Kucinich, a vegan, eats mostly raw “food,” including what Elizabeth calls “those wonderful Arabian dishes.” She admits her husband’s cooking experience only goes so far as boiling water.
Other candidates shun the kitchen as well. Let’s not forget that Hillary Clinton once belittled cooking, saying she was not the sort of wife who would have stayed at home baking cookies and having teas.
The only candidate to fess up to cooking this campaign is Mike Huckabee, the anti-obesity crusader, who admitted he cooked and ate popcorn-fryer squirrel while in college. Though the admission probably did firm up Huckabee’s support with the few already likely to vote for him, it was viewed around the country as his screen test for subsequent late-night comedy appearances.
Obama Crabby at Breakfast Table
At this point in the campaign, we know this about Barack Obama: like the rest of us, he wants things quiet at the breakfast table.
When Obama hit the New York Luncheonette in Manhattan with mayor Michael Bloomberg in December, the candidate happily dined on eggs and bacon, picked up the tab, left a nice tip, and managed to keep the press outside in the cold.
Since he’s become the frontrunner, though, Obama — purportedly a “notoriously disciplined” eater — seems unable to enjoy a meal in peace. Matters came to a head in April, when reporters shouted questions at Obama during a morning appearance at a diner. Rather than answer the question, Obama pleaded with reporters to just let him finish his waffle breakfast.
“Why can’t I just be president?” wrote the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd, suggesting we could only understand Obama’s waffle request as a metaphor if she posed it in a pair of hypothetical, attributed, rhetorical questions. “Why do I have to keep eating these gooey waffles and answering these gotcha questions and debating this gonzo woman?”
Sensing history, a local briefly offered a leftover scrap of Obama’s Waffle, as it came to be known, for auction on eBay.
In spite of their best efforts, no candidate has so far effectively won over the hearts of drinkers across America. White House aspirants’ frequent attempts at tippling have seemed desperate, halted, and awkward.
When it comes to beer, every candidate wants to be the one with whom voters want to sit down and shoot the breeze over a frosty mug. According to a National Beer Wholesalers Association poll, Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama is a 2-1 landslide winner over John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee who rarely drinks, but whose wife is heiress to a beer-distributorship fortune.
But even with the win, Obama hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype.
Earlier this year he ordered a Yuengling at a bar in Latrobe, Pa., home of rival Rolling Rock, then seemed to fret about whether Yuengling — a sweet, cheap, and barely drinkable brew made at the oldest brewery in America — was some sort of newfangled, fancy, yuppie beer. Hillary Clinton, perhaps sensing an opening after Obama’s barroom incident, was soon seen pounding beers and, laughably, chugging boilermaker components.
Candidates’ relationships with nonalcoholic drinks this campaign cycle have been no less discomforting or discomfiting.
Clinton is reportedly a regular coffee drinker, but she seems more out of place trying to fix her own cup of joe than she might look attempting to milk a horse. Still, for all her phoniness, she seems the only candidate capable of finding public solace in a cup of America’s favorite beverage.
The press rightly groaned recently when Obama, ordering at a diner, turned down a waitress’s offer of coffee and instead opted for orange juice. Yet the same press never gave Mitt Romney the scorn he deserved for going into a coffee shop and borrowing money from an aide so he could order something called — gack! — a vanilla steamer.
What Supporters’ Eating Choices Say About Their Candidates
Last month the New York Times ran a four-piece feature on how potential-voter dining habits correlate to support for a certain presidential candidate. Slate, summarizing, notes Clinton supporters “like fruit-filled cookies, while Obama’s, strangely enough, ‘intensely dislike vanilla wafers.’” Further revelations from the piece included that, “McCain voters are partial to Hardee’s, while Clinton’s like Church’s Fried Chicken, and Obama’s skewed toward Panera Bread.”
Not to be outdone, libertarian-leaning voters are making their food choices known, too. A Ron Paul supporter recently made news not for eating food but for stockpiling it (allegedly alongside some explosives). Meanwhile, some friends who attended the recent Libertarian Party nominating convention in Denver hung out at the Carioca Café, which was once voted the city’s “Best Place to See Chicks Fight.”
Candidates and Supporters: Eaters, All
Ultimately, how voters view a candidate and their supporters is shaped in part by how far the electorate perceives they deviate from the culinary mean. If that mean is lettuce, then candidates now know arugula is still one green too far afield.
The image the candidate and their followers portray is shaped by many factors — and what, where, and how they choose to eat and drink is a significant determinant in shaping that image. Let that serve as a warning to future devotees of raw foods, vanilla steamers, and fried squirrels alike.
–Baylen Linnekin is a law student and freelance writer in Washington, DC. He previously interviewed Anthony Bourdain and wrote about Chicago’s foie gras ban for Doublethink. He blogs at www.crispyontheoutside.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin