If you are reading this after my lunch hour on Tuesday, November 4, then I have already cast my vote for Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. Why did I vote for Sen. Obama? One word: Arugula.
You see, I love arugula. At least twice a week, I toss arugula leaves with stemmed-and-sliced strawberries, to make a simple, elegant, two-ingredient salad that I eat with no dressing or oil. And ever since Sen. Obama mentioned “the price of arugula at Whole Foods” while campaigning in Iowa, the Republicans (and the media) have sought to tie him inextricably to that most bitter of leafy greens. So if I like arugula and Sen. Obama likes arugula, then naturally, I have to vote for him.
Obviously, I’m kidding. No one makes election decisions based on food choices. And if someone did, you would probably want to pull them aside and ask them, politely but firmly, to either take their civic responsibility more seriously, or stay the Hell home next election day.
Why, then, is food so often brought up in our political campaigns? Most obviously, candidates use food as a way of burnishing their “regular-guy” credentials. That’s why candidates eat so many corn dogs at so many county fairs, and why, during this year’s Democratic primary, Sen. Hilary Clinton could be found throwing back shots at a Pennsylvania pub. Heck, during the 2004 Gubernatorial Race in Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels’ campaign boasted that the governor had eaten a pork tenderloin sandwich in all 92 of Indiana’s counties.
But I’m more interested in those times when food is used as a weapon against the other guy. There are a couple of ways to do this. First, you can skewer your opponent, by mocking him or her for not understanding regional food traditions and customs. In 2004, Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry ordered a Philly Cheesesteak with Swiss cheese, an apparent Philly Faux Pas. President George W. Bush, campaigning later in Philadelphia, made a point of telling audiences that he “like(s) my cheesesteak whiz with.”
Second, you can use food to slice a candidate, by arguing that the candidate is an out-of-touch interloper, whose food choices are radically different from yours. For example, after the 2004 election CNN reporter Candy Crowley told audiences that Sen. Obama lost the election because … he drinks green tea.
Here’s what Crowley said, according to a 2004 article in the Palm Beach Post:
In January 2003, when his campaign was still young enough that Kerry would actually sit down with reporters in a relaxed setting, he and Crowley met for breakfast at the Holiday Inn in Dubuque, Iowa. "I'd like to start out with some green tea," Kerry told the waitress, who stared at him for a moment before responding, "We have Lipton's."
Lipton's would be fine, Kerry said, but the memory stayed with Crowley. “There were many green tea instances … There's a very large disconnect between the Washington politicians and most of America and how they live. Bush was able to bridge that gap, and Kerry was not.”
Crowley’s comments are really quite astounding in their sheer, naked elitism. And I am not someone who throws the “e” word around much. But come on! Kerry’s preference for green tea represents a “large disconnect” between Washington and most of America? Translation: “us rubes in flyover country don’t drink none of that fancy ‘green tea’ stuff. We drink black tea, from a bag or a bottle, and if you do any differently, Mister Fancy Pants East Coast Elitist, you ain’t someone I can trust.”
This says more about Candy Crowley, and her apparently dim view of Middle America. Green Tea is sold, and consumed, nationwide, from the smallest towns to the biggest cities. It’s not some fancy commodity that can only be found in the more culturally sophisticated parts of our country.
Similarly, let’s revisit Arugula-gate. Sen. Obama was portrayed as out-of-touch for two reasons; first, because “no one in Iowa knows what arugula is.” Yikes. Are you kidding me? Again, arugula is grown throughout Iowa, and eaten throughout the nation.
Second, Obama was mocked for mentioning “Whole Foods,” the upscale grocery store. There are no Whole Foods locations in Iowa, and right-wing commenters pounced on this as another indication of Obama’s out-of-touch elitism. The clear implication is that Whole Foods is a big-city grocery store, patronized by big-city folks. But there are Whole Foods locations in Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Indiana. So, if you’re wondering why there are no Whole Foods stores in Iowa, it isn’t because Iowa is a backwards state full of hicks who don’t care about high-quality food; it’s simply because Whole Foods hasn’t yet opened its first Iowa location.
And honestly: does anyone care if Sen. Obama eats a different kind of leafy vegetable than you, or shops at a different grocery store than you? Does anyone care if Sen. Kerry drinks a different kind of tea than you? This argument is based on a flawed understanding of middle-Americans by people who, to paraphrase Candy Crowley, believe there’s a large cultural disconnect between the coasts and the center of our nation that simply doesn’t exist.
Oddly, you don’t hear many of these attacks when it comes to the Republican candidates. Earlier this year, Sen. John McCain held a party for his traveling press corps, and served couscous. A birthday party he held a few years back included lobster salad and crème brulee. I suspect this is because the “he eats odd foods” attack fits neatly into the “Democrats are effete elitists” stereotype that the media and the GOP love to perpetuate.
But it’s time for them to realize, it doesn’t work. We are an omnivorous nation. Regardless of geography, we fashion our own food choices, choosing to include or exclude meat or dairy, to go organic or pesticide-friendly, to eat raw or cooked, to frequent fast-food or prepare everything for ourselves, to grow our own produce or have it shipped in from overseas. Most importantly, we don’t expect our friends and neighbors – our or governors and presidents – to make the same choices we do. So God bless America, and pass me the tofu.