Why We’re So Obsessed With How Politicians Eat
Food and politics have always had a complicated relationship. On one hand, food is a powerful political tool. Eating and drinking are ways in which political candidates reveal their humanity, their common touch. And so they hobnob over barbecue with voters in South Carolina and wolf down local delicacies in New Hampshire diners, they livestream from their kitchens and Instagram their calorie bombs at the Iowa State Fair. “Dining together makes you much more relatable, and I think people want a president they feel they could relate to,” says Terry Sullivan, who managed Marco Rubio’s presidential bid.
Banal as eating can be, though, sharing food and drink is also surprisingly intimate, and it touches on so many taboos, cultural stereotypes and straight up bodily awkwardness that it leaves candidates vulnerable, opening them up to social media mockery. Food incidents have always had a strong confirmation bias: They tend to underscore the prevailing character sketch of the candidates. George H.W. Bush’s wonder at a grocery scanner was exaggerated, stories about it still confirmed a sense that he had grown out of touch with what it took for average Americans to get food on their tables. Hillary Clinton’s truthful claim on a hip-hop morning show that that she carried hot sauce everywhere she went was seen aspandering for black support. With Kamala Harris, there seems to be hypervigilance around her eating choices when it comes to anything heavily identified with African-American cuisine, whether that is her own hot sauce or fried chicken, a food with a long history in African-American cooking traditions, but also one that has been used in racist iconography for more than a century. In February, Harris joined the Reverend Al Sharpton for a meal in Harlem. Seated together at the storied soul-food restaurant Sylvia’s with a swarm of photographers clustered at a nearby window, Harris ordered chicken and waffles, a specialty of the restaurant, while Sharpton stuck to his mostly vegan diet. Dave Evans, an ABC reporter, tweeted “Chicken & waffles. Seriously? For @KamalaHarris & toast & bananas for @TheRevAl.” The tweet has since been deleted and exactly what his complaint was is a little unclear, but it seemed he was criticizing her for chasing the African-American vote a little too eagerly.
Food gaffes are almost always rooted in unmasking some perceived inauthenticity, which is perhaps why it has generally not tripped up Donald Trump; his burgers on silver platters fit perfectly with his carefully constructed common-man image. Commenters might have had a field day when, during the 2016 campaign he tweeted “Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!” but it didn’t seem to harm him with voters—perhaps because it didn’t actually create a mismatch between his perceived character and what he hoped to project.
And maybe this year’s crop of hungry Democratic candidates can take their cues from Trump in that respect, at least: Be yourself.