The Democratic Food Primary
Now that a solid majority of the American people are running for the Democratic presidential nomination, it’s time to assess the field. You’ve probably seen the candidates’ positions on the issues of the day, from climate change to health care to Ted Cruz’s beard. But where are they on food? I don’t mean things like food safety or food security, important as they are. I mean what their relationship to food is and what it tells us about how they’d run the country.
I can hear the trolls already. Food? Really? You’re going to judge people on something as meaningless as food? Why, yes. Yes, I am. We all eat three times a day. How we spend that time reveals a lot about who we are. And when it comes to electing a President, who they are as people is particularly important. The world is unpredictable. Presidents constantly deal with situations that no one could have anticipated. It comes down to character. Do they make good decisions? Can we trust them? Are they in touch with the realities of everyday Americans?
If you don’t think food reveals character, let me remind you of 2016:
This of course is Trump’s Cinco de Mayo tweet in which he proclaimed that Trump Tower serves “the best taco bowls.” He forgot to add that’s because everyone else stopped serving them in 1982.
Ah, but that was then. Let’s look at some of the leading candidates for 2020.
Harris loves to cook. She loves eating well. And she loves talking about food. When she’s on the road, she makes it a point to visit small, family-run restaurants and often asks for recipes of dishes she likes. At Sabrina’s in Reno, for instance, Harris loved the cilantro-coconut rice that came with her enchiladas and eventually prevailed on the owner to give her the recipe. But that’s not all. She then recreated the cilantro-coconut rice at home. Kudos.
Then there was the time right after she announced her candidacy that Harris stopped for an egg-and-cheese sandwich at a deli in New York’s Penn Station:
This easily could be me stopping for a little snicky-snack on my way to the train. I applaud her instinct not to settle for a Chobani or protein bar but to go for something warm, toasty and delicious. I might have gone sesame bagel, but toast is perfectly acceptable in this situation.
A few weeks later, Harris was off to South Carolina, where she stopped for lunch at Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston:
Harris’s order was above reproach: pulled-pork sandwich with corn bread, collard greens and banana pudding. She later said the greens were the best ever and that she needed to go back to get the recipe for the BBQ sauce. Pitch-perfect.
Harris’s guilty pleasures both involve fake cheese — Nacho Cheese Doritos and cheddar cheese popcorn. Both are first-rate guilty pleasures. Harris gets bonus points for waxing eloquent about stopping at Garrett’s Popcorn Shop in Chicago to get her cheese corn fix, with perhaps a very slight technical deduction for not liking her cheese corn and caramel corn mixed. I hope that’s not a knock on the caramel corn at Garrett’s because it’s the best in the world. But the record is not clear on that point. Maybe Chuck Todd can pin her down the next time she’s on Meet the Press.
Harris with her Thanksgiving cornbread.
Harris is the whole foodie package. Authentic. Tasteful. Generous. Passionate. If she were elected President, not only would she be the first woman, the first African-American woman, and the first Asian-American to be elected President, she would be the first foodie to hold the office. Or maybe the second, if you count Taft.
Google pictures of Joe Biden eating and you’ll find that ninety percent of them are Biden eating ice cream cones. He’s not one of those passive ice cream eaters who licks around the cone as it melts. He attacks the cone in big bites. I can’t quite make out the flavors he’s working on — could be chocolate vanilla swirl in his left hand and butter brickle in his right, both solid blue-collar choices. No newfangled, fancy-pants ice cream flavors like balsamic-champagne-lingonberry for Biden.
The other food Biden seems to enjoy are subs. Again, he’s not so much an eater as a mauler.
Biden is particularly devoted to one specific sub shop — Capriotti’s, a Delaware-based sandwich shop that opened a DC outpost in 2013. Not surprisingly, Biden was first in line when they opened their doors to pick up subs to bring back to the White House for himself and Obama:
One of Biden’s favorite Capriotti’s subs is essentially the Thanksgiving Sandwich, with turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing. Biden orders his with peppers and insists they are important. That’s a decent order and I like to see Biden taking a bold stand on peppers. He then goes a bit overboard by claiming that Delaware makes better subs than Philly. “The only place Philadelphia can compete is steak sandwiches. Just compete. Not win.” Still, it’s nice to see Biden stick up for his peeps, no matter how misguided. (Unfortunately for Biden, Capriotti’s has closed all of its DC operations but still has outposts in Virginia and Maryland.)
Finally, of course, who could forget when Biden accompanied President Obama to Ray’s Hell Burger in 2009. While this could have gained Biden significant foodie points, it was clearly Obama’s choice and Biden was just tagging along on Obama’s eight-year cheeseburger crawl.
Still, for enthusiastic, grounded and loyal food habits, Biden deserves better than passing marks.
Booker became a vegetarian in the ’90s and a full-fledged vegan in 2014. He strongly believes that meat-eating will have dire consequences for the planet but refrains from preaching to others.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Booker’s veganism is how difficult it must be. It’s hard enough for civilians to eat vegan; it’s exponentially harder for someone running for President. There are scores of events like Rep. Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry” and the Iowa State Fair where being pictured wolfing down some sort of animal protein is de rigueur. When Booker was asked about that conundrum on The View, he said that while he won’t be eating pork chops on a stick, “there will be lots of deep-fried stuff that I will be able to eat.”
So while I’m no vegan and it’s unimaginable for me to think about giving up so much joy in my life, that’s kind of the point. Booker believes in something and decided to do something about it. And he won’t be dissuaded by the missed pleasures or the need to constantly explain himself. After all, this is the guy who lived in a mobile home on one of Newark’s worst drug corners because he thought it was the right thing to do. Some people accuse him of grandstanding, but these kind of tough everyday choices are about living out his beliefs even when no one’s watching. So while I can’t disagree more with his food choices, I can’t help but admire his commitment.
You can’t talk about Klobuchar and food and not start with the Salad Incident. For those living under a rock in February, a Klobuchar staffer brought a salad onto the plane without a fork, so Klobuchar took a comb from her bag and ate the salad with it. When she was done, she handed the comb to a staffer for cleaning. The Salad Incident obviously fit the narrative of Klobuchar as a difficult boss. It also spawned a cottage industry of online smart-asses trying to figure out what kind of comb one could eat a salad with. Klobuchar’s initial defense was that it was just a “mom thing” but she eventually pivoted, as Minnesotans are wont to do, to using self-deprecating humor to try and defuse the situation. At the Gridiron dinner, Klobuchar got up and asked the gathering “How did everyone like the salad?” She should have left it there with a funny, light-touch reference. But then she added “I thought it was ok, but needed a little more scalp oil and a pinch of dandruff.” Eww.
But other than Salad-Gate, Klobuchar generally does pretty well with food. She convenes a “Minnesota Morning” meeting once a month in her DC office for Minnesota visitors and flies in pastries from bakeries around the state. She also started the annual Minnesota Congressional Delegation Hot Dish Competition, which this year was won by Rep. Betty McCollum with her “Hot Dish A-Hmong Friends.” Klobuchar has won the competition in years past but this year finished out of the money. Apparently her hot dish failed to contain tater tots or cream of mushroom soup and the judges downgraded it to a mere casserole.
Out on the hustings, Klobuchar seems comfortable at whatever spaghetti dinner or pancake breakfast comes her way. She doesn’t just drop by for the photo op. She stays and she eats. Usually with a fork.
Klobuchar with daughter Abigail in Iowa at the Monroe County Democrats Annual Spaghetti Dinner
In some ways, Bernie Sander cares more about food than you’d think. He drinks smoothies and mostly eats locally-raised meats and vegetables. It’s not that he’s doing Paleo or Keto. He’s always eaten this way. His breakfast of Raisin Bran and cherry juice tells you all you need to know. He’s old school, or, more specifically, old school-Vermont, which is like old school but with nuts and berries.
The problem I have with Sanders is that he seems to take so little joy in what he eats. Here he is, choking down a hot dog from Nathan’s on Coney Island during the 2016 campaign:
That’s the most desultory Nathan’s hot dog that’s ever been consumed. He looks like he’s eating his daily ration of stale bread on a ship coming over from the old country.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Beto O’Rourke has a slightly odd relationship to food. After his loss in the Texas Senate race to Ted Cruz, O’Rourke ate dirt with “regenerative powers” in a mountain village north of Santa Fe. Even believers say they usually rub dirt on their bodies rather than ingest it.
Thus far in the 2020 campaign, O’Rourke has become more famous for standing on food counters rather than eating at them.
But once in a while, he does let the Betomaniacs watch him eat in that dentist-chair performance-art style of his.
Welcome to the breakfast buffet at the Holiday Inn Express. Looks like someone nicked themselves shaving this morning. O’Rourke has already eaten his powdered scrambled eggs and barely touched his sausages before moving on to the Froot Loops (Btw, did you know that Froot Loops are all the same flavor? True fact.) And what is that concoction with the raisins floating in milk? I’m guessing it must be oatmeal. It seems like a bizarre hodgepodge from the buffet but actually is extremely on-brand.
O’Rourke does better at Culver’s. Burger and fries with one cup of cheese sauce and two ketchups. I’m a fan of lots of ketchup and support his decision to go for two cups with a single order of fries. I don’t see any drink or any of Culver’s famous cheese curds, but those could be off camera. I’m sure one of his staffers would grab him the frozen custard when he was done eating so it wasn’t melting on the table, but that’s a minor quibble.
You won’t be shocked to hear that Elizabeth Warren has more policy papers on food than all the other candidates combined. It’s time to reverse Big Food consolidation run amok, like Bayer’s purchase of Monsanto. Then we need to deal with vertical integration in the meat industry to give family farmers more options. And then in her second week in office, it’ll be time to really buckle down and get something done…
It’s much harder to gauge Warren’s own relationship to food. I can’t find a single picture of Elizabeth Warren eating on the Internet. She must eat, but either she’s concerned about potentially embarrassing food photos or she just prefers to eat in private. The one thing we’ve all seen her ingest online is a Michelob Ultra in her kitchen:
Besides being awkward attempt at being relatable, what does a Michelob Ultra tell us about Warren? Not much, other than she’s probably someone who watches calories and carbs (Michelob Ultra contains 95 calories and 2.6 grams of carbs, compared to 155 calories and 13.3 grams of carbs in a regular Michelob), and that takes precedence over taste.
The only other food product Warren is associated with is Massachusetts-based Dunkin’ Donuts, which Warren delivered to the House Democrats during their sit-in. Her favorite order is the strawberry-frosted sprinkles donut, a pretty weak choice with donuts like glazed, sour cream, toasted coconut, chocolate cake, and Boston Kreme on the board.
Gillibrand’s seminal food event thus far was at a campaign lunch when she started eating her fried chicken with a knife and fork. She then noticed that her tablemates were eating with their fingers and asked if she could pick hers up as well. Her companion said it was fine and so she did. A few days later, Frank Bruni of NYT ripped into Gillibrand: “You got the sense that she would have grabbed that chicken with her pinkie toes if she’d been told to; she would have sucked it through a very large straw if those were the cues. Anything to conform. Anything to please.” In other words, according to Bruni, stop being such a phony.
The other food-related event Gillibrand was a part of didn’t really center on her. It centered on my new favorite person in the world, “Ranch Girl.” Here’s what happened. Gillibrand was speaking to supporters in a restaurant in Iowa City when a woman tried to walk past her. Gillibrand reached out but the woman pushed past, explaining “Sorry, I’m just trying to get some ranch.” It’s one of my favorite moments of the entire campaign, maybe because it reminds me so much of the folks I grew up with in Minnesota. Sure politics are important, but not as important as getting some ranch. (Click below for video)
Recently, Buttigieg had lunch with Rev. Al Sharpton at the iconic Harlem soul food restaurant, Sylvia’s.
If you’re wondering how Reverend Al has gotten so thin, note that all he has in front of him is a cup of tea and dry toast.
Buttigieg went with a more classic order of fried chicken, mac & cheese, collard greens, iced tea. Mayor Pete asked Reverend Al if it would be rude to eat the chicken with his hands. No, go ahead, the Reverend assured him, and he did. In other words, Buttigieg made exactly the same gaffe that Gillibrand made, and yet there was almost no hubbub. No screaming in social media. No Frank Bruni column lambasting Buttigieg’s character. Is this all just evidence of a basic double standard when it comes to female candidates, or does the subject of food that make it even worse? I wonder if we give men a pass when it comes to food and other issues traditionally associated with the hearth and domesticity, but the idea that a woman wouldn’t know the right way to eat fried chicken is inexcusable.
Buttigieg’s other food connection is kind of romantic but ultimately discouraging. The story is that on his first date with his future husband Chasten, Buttigieg took him to the Fiddler’s Hearth Pub in South Bend and introduced him to the Scotch Egg. (For the uninitiated, a Scotch Egg is basically a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage, covered in bread crumbs and deep-fried.) Buttigieg’s wedding announcement in the New York Times said he knew he “had a shot” once he saw that Chasten “was down for the Scotch Egg.” If he meant the fact that Chasten would eat a Scotch Egg for him meant he must truly be a selfless individual with no regard for his own well-being, I’d totally be with him. But I don’t think that’s what he meant. The prospect of a national resurgence in Scotch Eggs under a Buttigieg Administration is frightening enough to warrant a downgrade.
I need to stress that it’s still very early in the process. There are countless pancakes, pizza and pork products still to come. Most importantly, State Fair season has not yet begun, with its gauntlet of embarrassing Internet food memes waiting to happen. If they’re smart, the candidates would bring on some high-priced food consultant to help them navigate the treacherous waters. And by consultant, of course, I mean blogger.
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