Sun, 05 Apr 2020

Bill de Blasio's bagel gaffe and the fraught politics of food

The Conversation
19 Jan 2020, 00:24 GMT+10

If New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hadn't already dropped out of the 2020 presidential race, #bagelgate might have been the nail in the coffin.

His Jan. 15 tweet praising a toasted bagel on National Bagel Day instantly set off hardline bagel devotees-cum-voters. De Blasio quickly amended his tweet to delete the word "toasted." But the damage was already done. Purists scorned the very idea of toasting a bagel, calling into question his bona fides as a New Yorker.

The outrage over bagel protocol may seem silly. But few acts are as personal as eating, and food is closely intertwined with place and culture.

For a politician, food might seem like a low-hanging fruit. Is there an easier way to appeal to the masses? Everyone, after all, eats.

But when politicians wade into local food customs, they do so at their own risk. My research on presidents and first ladies suggests that uninformed assumptions about food often get candidates and elected officials in trouble.

Bill de Blasio isn't the first politician to run afoul of food norms and face the wrath of voters. And he certainly won't be the last.

Culinary campaign calamities

Most political wannabes try hard to bridge the gap between their wealthy backgrounds and the rest of us. It rarely works.

During the 1976 presidential campaign, incumbent president Gerald Ford, before the eyes of bewildered Texans, peeled back the aluminum foil - but not the corn husk - and took a giant bite out of a tamale. Ford never lived it down.

According to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, "The Great Tamale Incident" sealed Ford's loss to Jimmy Carter in the Lone Star State.

In 2003, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry unwittingly broke food norms when he ordered Swiss cheese for his Philly cheese steak instead of Cheese Whiz. Nine years later, Republican Mitt Romney asked for a "sub" in Pennsylvania, where, as locals will tell you, they call them hoagies. And Romney again made himself an easy target for mockery in 2019, when the millionaire businessman claimed his favorite type of meat was a hot dog.

Pizza is treacherous terrain: Republicans Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and John Kasich have all faced withering criticism for eating pizza with a fork. Bill de Blasio made the same mistake, too, in what was dubbed "forkgate."

But no food has a greater potential for campaign catastrophe than the corn dog. The optics of state fair corn dog consumption are never good. The web is full of wince-worthy photos of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Bernie Sanders all struggling to maintain their dignity while biting into a battered, oversized wiener popsicle.

Better to be a vegan like Cory Booker - and avoid them altogether - than be seen on the wrong side of the corn dog. That may be one rule that a majority of voters can agree on.

You're out of touch...

Other politicians are either unaware - or don't care - about their elitism.

In 1972, the beer-swilling, working-class regulars in a Youngstown, Ohio bar cringed when Democratic vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver hollered, "Make mine a Courvoisier!"

In 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis suggested to debt-ridden Iowa farmers that they grow Belgian endive, a bitter, leafy green seldom found outside of gourmet restaurants. Almost 20 years later, fellow Democrat Barack Obama told those same farmers that arugula might bring in more profits than corn and soybeans.

Obama also made the mistake of asking for Dijon mustard - and no ketchup - for his cheeseburger. Fox News host Sean Hannity let him have it, calling him "President Poupon."

The producers of an infamous 2004 attack ad damned Democratic presidential aspirant Howard Dean for his elitism. Not surprisingly, food played a role.

Dean, the ad sneered, was a "latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show."

These gastronomic tales show how the semiotics of what and how we eat matter profoundly to millions of people.

On the one hand, to transgress is to risk looking inauthentic, disrespectful or foolish - none of which is sound politics.

On the other hand, unabashedly embracing the latest health food trends can get a politician ridiculed as elitist and out of touch.

Perhaps the best outcome is simply to win. A president can indulge in guilty gastronomic pleasures. Ronald Reagan loved his jelly beans, George H.W. Bush couldn't put down his pork rinds and Bill Clinton, until his heart surgeries, was irresistibly drawn to McDonald's.

For political candidates, however, a shrewd understanding of American eating habits is the recommended minimum daily requirement on the campaign trail.

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Author: Stacy A. Cordery - Professor of History, Iowa State University The Conversation

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