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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.
ford


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. https://munchies.vice.com/en/articles/how-a-plate-of-tamales-may-have-crushed-gerald-fords-1976-presidential-campaign

[2] Quoted in Anne Noyes Saini, “When A Tamale Determines the Presidency,” Sporkful, July 11, 2016. http://www.sporkful.com/when-a-tamale-determines-the-presidency/

[3] Quoted in Brandon Baker, “Temple Professor Explains the Odd Phenomenon of Politicians Posing with Food,” Philly Voice, July 19, 2016. http://www.phillyvoice.com/temple-professor-explains-odd-phenomenon-politicians-posing-food/

[4] Reed Tucker, “5 Times Politicians Made Fast-Food Runs,” April 14, 2015. http://nypost.com/2015/04/14/5-times-politicians-made-fast-food-runs/

[5] Evan Thomas, “Obama’s Bubba Gap,” Newsweek, April 26, 2008. http://www.newsweek.com/cover-story-obamas-bubba-gap-86197

[6] Francesca Chambers, “2008 Caucus Winner Huckabee Draws Large Crowd,” August 13, 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3196823/Hawkeye-State-Hearts-Huckabee-2008-caucus-winner-draws-large-crowd-Iowa-State-Fair-tasting-pork-chop-wife-wouldn-t-let-finish.html

[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. http://greatideas.people.com/2015/08/19/hillary-clinton-campaign-trail-diet/

[8] Lucy Tiven, “The One Thing Hillary Clinton Won’t Do on Camera Reveals an Outrageous Double Standard,” attn:, April 11, 2016. http://www.attn.com/stories/7309/let-hillary-clinton-eat-cake-on-camera