November 2016

The Politics of Food on the Campaign Trail

Our updates from the Humanities Research Fellows exploring the topic of food continue this week with a short essay by Professor Jan Wilson, who explores the politics of eating in American political campaigns.

In 1976, Gerald Ford was running for a second term as president against Jimmy Carter. At a campaign stop in San Antonio, Texas to visit the Alamo, Ford was offered a plate of tamales. He picked one up and proceeded to bite into it without first removing the corn husk. As he choked and spluttered on the tough wrapping, members of the press gleefully snapped pictures and furiously recorded the incident in their notepads. Ford lost the election that year, and “The Great Tamale Incident” went down in presidential campaign food history.[1] “Every newscast in Texas all weekend long…show[ed] Gerald Ford not knowing how to eat a tamale,” notes former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who was living in Texas at the time. “I am convinced that it was the gaffe with the tamale that cost [Ford] the state of Texas.”[2]

While Huckabee’s remark might be a bit hyperbolic, it is nevertheless true that food has long played a central, symbolic role in political campaigning. Temple University Communications professor Bruce Hardy has argued that second only to language, “food is probably one of the most community-tying things we have. . . . We usually talk about [food] in terms of geography — Italian food, Indian food, Chinese food and a Philly cheesesteak. When you go to a community as a candidate, you really want people to think, ‘Oh, this candidate cares about me.’”[3] Conversely, food gaffes, such as Ford’s consumption of the tamale husk, can signal to voters that a candidate is elitist, culturally insensitive, or hopelessly out of touch with ordinary voters. Today, food has become not only a way for a candidate to connect to “average” Americans and to the values of local communities, but a chief marker of her or his character. And, importantly, a candidate’s interaction with food is deeply implicated in and in fact shaped by the discourses of gender and sexuality.

Certain types of foods are regularly mobilized in a candidate’s pursuit to demonstrate her or his “average person” credentials. The fast-food stop has long been a standard photo opportunity for politicians. “What better way to communicate that you’re ‘just folks,’” asks New York Post journalist Reed Tucker, “than by chowing down on a greasy burger in front of a room full of jaded pool photographers?”[4] Awkwardly eating food on a stick at state fairs, consuming pizza or ice cream at treasured local establishments, or chugging beers surrounded by blue-collar workers at bars and taverns serve the same purpose. “Regardless of my upbringing, status, and privileges,” political candidates seem to be saying, “I am just like you and will serve your interests if you elect me.”

kerryAt the same time, opportunities for food faux pas are everywhere on the campaign trail, and the 2016 election season was no exception. After alienating many Latino voters toward the beginning of his run for the presidency by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, Donald Trump later posted on Twitter a picture of himself eating a taco bowl with the caption, “I love Hispanics!” Critics were quick to point out that such pandering would do little to connect Trump to Latino voters, particularly when his taco bowl cost $18 and was prepared by an Irish-American chef. Just a few weeks before the New York Republican primary, presidential hopeful John Kasich committed what New Yorkers interpreted as an unforgivable food faux pas when he used a fork to eat his pizza during a campaign stop at a restaurant in Queens. While campaigning in Indiana during the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton was widely praised when she neatly downed a shot of whiskey followed by a beer chaser at a tavern in Crown Point. But eight years later, she was mocked by the press when she tried to pour beer from a tap at a brewery in Wisconsin and got mostly foam. Her attempt to prove her ordinariness suffered even further when she admitted that while she often drank beer, she had never actually poured one.

While food gaffes have occurred in every election cycle, the culture wars of the 1990s and the increasing ideological divide between the two major political parties have given these gaffes new meaning and have offered Republican candidates, especially, a handy illustration of their Democratic opponents’ out-of-touch elitism. When John Kerry was mocked for requesting Swiss cheese instead of the traditional Cheez Whiz on his Philly Cheese Steak during his run for the presidency in 2004, Republicans were quick to point out that his elitist food preferences were evidence that he simply did not understand the American electorate. When he ultimately lost the election to incumbent George W. Bush, right-wing commentator Linda Chavez scoffed that perhaps he could have won more votes had he “[spent] less time at Starbucks sipping double lattes over the Sunday Times and more time at church or the local high school football game or in line at Wal-Mart.” Never mind that Kerry’s opponent came from a background of wealth and privilege. When asked by Oprah Winfrey to name his favorite sandwich during his first presidential campaign in 2000, Bush responded in his best Texas drawl, “Peanut butter and jelly,” much to the delight of the charmed audience.

More than a marker of class status and a mode of connection to average Americans, a politician’s food choices on the campaign trail also send very distinct messages about his or her masculinity or femininity. Because healthy food is so solidly associated with femininity, male political candidates usually go out of their way to combat the perception that they are healthy eaters. Barrack Obama’s comment about the high price of arugula at Whole Foods during the 2008 presidential contest baffled Iowa farmers, many of whom were unfamiliar with the leafy salad green and had never stepped foot in a Whole Foods store. But Obama was mocked for his arugula comment not just because it made him seem aloof and detached from regular voters but because it made him appear effeminate. Republican opponents seized on “Argula-gate” to paint Obama “as a Harvard toff who nibbles daintily at designer salads while the working man, worried about layoffs at the plant, belts another shot,” reported Newsweek journalist Evan Thomas.[5] The “accusation” that Obama “nibbles daintily” on salads while real men work in a plant and drink liquor casted doubt about Obama’s manliness and, therefore, his ability to serve as leader of the free world. Following widespread media coverage of his arugula faux pas, Obama worked hard to fight the impression that he was a healthy eater and made multiple references to his preference for fried foods and desire to “fatten up” his skinny frame. Like Obama, other male politicians make a point of being photographed scarfing down fattening foods or “blaming” their wives when they display more restricted eating in order to avoid the appearance of being health conscious and therefore effeminate. At the Iowa State Fair in 2015, for example, Mike Huckabee told reporters that he would have finished his entire pork chop on a stick if his “health-conscious” wife, Janet, had not taken it away from him. When reporters at the fair overheard Jeb Bush asking a food vendor to give him only half of a fried Snickers bar, Bush quickly pointed out that his wife would be upset with him if he veered too far from his Paleo diet.[6] Such statements cement one’s masculine credentials and perpetuate the widely held assumption that women are responsible for policing men’s food choices.

clintonWhile male political candidates encourage and even help to create a “manly food portrait,” female political candidates work within very different and much more limited food narratives. Expected to be healthy eaters who are perpetually “watching their weight,” women running for office are praised for their self restraint when they avoid food temptation and are roundly shamed when they do not. At a campaign stop at a famed Brooklyn cheesecake emporium in April 2016, Hillary Clinton sat at a counter looking wistfully at a row of delectable cheesecakes. While those around her ate the dessert with abandon, she did not take a single bite. “I learned early on not to eat in front of all of you,” she later remarked. “So, I’m sitting here just pining. Pining for a bite.” Praising her “discipline,” a People Magazine reporter wrote, “If only we all had the willpower that Hillary Clinton does. . . . Even when tempted, she took the high road.”[7] But the press reaction was very different a few weeks later when Clinton dared to take a tiny bite of ice cream while visiting a popular creamery in the East Village. Barely had she put the spoon in her mouth before a male reporter in the room called out, “Do you know what the calorie count of that is?” a remark that was met with boos from the customers and Clinton herself. Writing of this incident, one commentator observed that “Clinton’s hesitance [about eating in public] may have something to do with the sexism she has encountered throughout her presidential run, as well as the way the media shames women’s bodies and eating habits more generally.”[8]

The American public’s image of an ideal political candidate and the food narratives that women and men running for office consequently attempt to negotiate reflect much wider discourses about class, gender, and sexuality that are in turn shaped by anti-intellectualism, sexism, and homophobia. When making food choices on the campaign trail, both male and female political candidates are regulated and disciplined by these discourses but in very different ways. With few exceptions, men consciously try to avoid emasculation and charges of elitism by indulging in unhealthy foods, even as women consciously try to avoid being fat shamed by displaying weight consciousness and self restraint. It stands to reason, then, that shifts in these discourses resulting from growing racial, ethnic, and size diversity and ongoing struggles for social justice will continue to result in a renegotiation of the symbolic values of foods mobilized in political campaigns.

[1] Wyatt Marshall, “How a Plate of Tamales May Have Crushed Gerald Ford’s 1976 Presidential Campaign,” Munchies, November 8, 2016.

[2] Quoted in Anne Noyes Saini, “When A Tamale Determines the Presidency,” Sporkful, July 11, 2016.

[3] Quoted in Brandon Baker, “Temple Professor Explains the Odd Phenomenon of Politicians Posing with Food,” Philly Voice, July 19, 2016.

[4] Reed Tucker, “5 Times Politicians Made Fast-Food Runs,” April 14, 2015.

[5] Evan Thomas, “Obama’s Bubba Gap,” Newsweek, April 26, 2008.

[6] Francesca Chambers, “2008 Caucus Winner Huckabee Draws Large Crowd,” August 13, 2015.

[7] Ana Calderone, “Get All the Details on Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Trail Diet — Ice Cream and Pork Chops Included!” People Magazine, August 19, 2015.

[8] Lucy Tiven, “The One Thing Hillary Clinton Won’t Do on Camera Reveals an Outrageous Double Standard,” attn:, April 11, 2016.

The Beethoven Quartet

Having a Taste for Beethoven

This February, Chamber Music Tulsa is hosting an extraordinary set of performances by the Miró Quartet in which the group will play all of Beethoven’s quartets.  This is an extremely rare treat and it will take place here in Tulsa across six days from February 17-26.  In order to help the Tulsa-area community better understand this music and its importance, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities is partnering with CTO to sponsor a pair of talks on Beethoven and his world.

The first of these is linked to our food theme and will take place Thursday, November 17 at 7:00pm in Tyrrell Hall.  In “Having a Taste for Beethoven,” Dr. Sanna Pederson, the Mavis C. Pittman Professor of Music the University of Oklahoma, will discuss the develop of taste—both flavorful and aesthetic—in the Enlightenment era while exploring broadly the the music and life of the famed composer.  The lecture is free and open to everyone, so take a moment to come and learn more about Beethoven and his genius.

Tickets for the February concerts are available through Chamber Music Tulsa.

La Revue de Cuisine


For the second year in a row, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities is excited to partner with Tulsa Symphony Orchestra and Philbrook to co-host a Second Saturday at the museum organized around our theme.  This year we are working on the topic of food, and the TSO in partnership with Portico Dance Company has put together a special performance of the 1927 jazz ballet, La Revue de Cuisine.  It playfully tells a kitchen love story in which a dastardly spoon tries to come between the brewing romance between a kettle and a lid.  The whole thing ends when a disembodied foot appears to boot everyone off the stage.

This performance will be one of only several food-themed events at Philbrook this Saturday, November 12.  There will be art projects, a short talk by Taylor Hansen about the Food on the Move program, museum tours, and a scavenger hunt.  Best of all, these events, including museum admission, are all free.  So please come on what looks like a beautiful weekend for a collaborative, family-friendly celebration of art and food.  The program runs through the day, with performances of the ballet at 11:30am and 2:00pm.

Food as Ritual and Art

Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue, this week with a post by Anh-Thuy Nguyn, Assistant Professor of Art at Rogers State University.

nguyen_choppedsugarcaneAs long as I can recall, every member of my family always had to gather around the table for lunches and dinners. My father and my mother alternated who would cook for us from scratch, since it was expensive to purchase anything from cans. My older sister and I were expected to help by washing the vegetables, making a pot of rice, or preparing utensils.

If my mother came home late from work at a nearby market, we all had to wait for her. When she could not be home, she would send a messenger (a real person) to alert us her absence. My father or my older sister always saved a portion of our meal for my mom, which included rice, a bowl of soup, fresh greens, a savory dish (often with meat or fish), and some fish sauce. These dishes’ portions were set aside before we ate our meals. It was disrespectful to save left-over food for a member who was not present at the dinning table.

nguyen_ricedrawingThe communal aspect of preparing and sharing food with others has been an important part of our family’s tradition and of our larger Vietnamese tradition, regardless of the individual’s wish to be included or not. I never asked my parents if they wanted to be together for meals or if they just wanted to be around us, their children. I believe this act of being together at daily meals somehow developed itself into an integral part of me being Vietnamese, being a daughter, being a wife, being a cook, and being an artist.

In the humanities seminar, I bring with me a bag of food memories and creative projects inspired by these memories of food. So far, my knowledge of food has been expanded to include the tensions between local food/local identity and the global food chain as well as the social dynamics of food (in ancient and contemporary cultures, in mainstream cultures and indigenous cultures.) I have learned how changes in our food industry and our agriculture have been controlled by big corporations and how our cultural connections and ethnic identity are collated with food memories. What we eat and how we eat not only built the “I” inside each of us but also contribute to our environments and values. We are the individuals we choose to be; yet, we are also collectives in a food chain, affecting being affected by others.

nguyen_thuyriceperformanceArtists, like myself, who are interested in food and relational aesthetics (an art practice coined by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud in 1998), find ways to construct a social circumstance (particularly food related activities) for our viewers to interact with the experiences. These experiences are considered art. Argentinean-born Thai artist Rikrit Tiravanija started to serve PadThai in a kitchen set up at a gallery in New York as early as 1992. He claimed the communal experience of cooking and eating were the art objects themselves. In my personal creative work, I claim the communal experience of preparing food and sharing it ritually with my viewers is art. I am looking forward to creating more creative projects inspired by the new gateway that the seminar has revealed.