Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Food-based Voting?

Ice cream and a corn dog in Des Moines, and pizza in Manchester, N.H. (Photo: New York Times)

Would you vote for somebody who turns up his or her nose at the food you love?

That's one of the points made in the New York Times article Where the Votes Are, So Are All Those Calories.

John Kerry learned that the hard way in Philadelphia in 2004. Dana Milbank captured the essence of the problem in the Washington Post:

"...the Massachusetts Democrat went to Pat's Steaks and ordered a cheesesteak -- with Swiss cheese. If that weren't bad enough, the candidate asked photographers not to take his picture while he ate the sandwich; shutters clicked anyway, and Kerry was caught nibbling daintily at his sandwich -- another serious faux pas.

"It will doom his candidacy in Philadelphia," predicted Craig LaBan, food critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which broke the Sandwich Scandal. After all, Philly cheesesteaks come with Cheez Whiz, or occasionally American or provolone. But Swiss cheese? "In Philadelphia, that's an alternative lifestyle," LaBan explained.

And don't even mention Kerry's dainty bites. "Obviously, Kerry's a high-class candidate, and he misread the etiquette," LaBan said. "Throwing fistfuls of steak into the gaping maw, fingers dripping -- that's the proper way." (Here's the whole article)

It got me thinking about the conclusions we draw about people based on what they eat, and how they eat it.

Many made fun of Bill Clinton when he would go for a run, Secret Service agents in tow, as he made detours to McDonald's to...er..refuel, before embarking on the return leg to the White House. But under the chuckles many saw a man whose weakness for junk food gave him the down-to-earth, regular-guy (albeit with poor appetite control) air that candidates work strenuously to achieve. When he left Pennsylvania Avenue and set up his office in Harlem, its proximity to excellent soul food restaurants was not lost upon journalists and Clinton-watchers. Oh, yes...then came the heart attack and his embrace of the South Beach Diet. Yet another way the regular guy saw himself reflected in Bill Clinton.

From the NYTimes article: "Those wanting to be president must never, ever refuse or fumble the local specialties, lest they repeat the sins of John Kerry (dismissed as effete when he ordered a Philly cheese steak with Swiss in 2004) or Gerald R. Ford (on a 1976 swing through Texas, he bit into a tamale with the corn husk still on)."

Not every candidate should be expected to know how to tackle an uncommon food - but what I would watch for is their willingness to sample the unknown, to take on something less than straightforward, and be willing to get their hands dirty.

So where is the candidate who will dine off the beaten campaign food track? Let him or her head to a dim sum restaurant in any of America's Chinatowns, and peek into the big rolling steam carts as they trundle by the tables. I'm sure many would order potstickers, har gow (crystal shrimp dumplings), char siew bao (barbequed pork buns) and maybe even sesame balls for dessert. Once exotic, these treats have now entered mainstream America. But how comfortable would a potential governor or president be tucking into nor mai gai - a ball of glutinous (sticky) rice with meats and shitake mushrooms, wrapped in a big lotus leaf? And would they dare to order - and eat - fong sao?

Literally, fong sao means the claw of the phoenix. A euphemism for chicken feet, stir-fried or deep-fried, then marinated and finally steamed. One has to pop the foot into the mouth, bones and all, and do lots of deft manifpulation with teeth, lips and tongue before politely depositing a pile of minuscule bones into a napkin or plate. If a candidate tackled that, it would tell me that he or she is:

  • Unafraid

  • Curious

  • Open to new ideas and experiences

  • Not superficial

  • Willing to deal with problems

  • Really into diversity
  • - no lip service here!
I want to see candidates fearlessly eating oysters on the half shell in Seattle, lentil ice cream in Pullman, rocky mountain oysters in Montana, the hottest red and green chile in New Mexico, and garlic cheesecake in Gilroy, California.

What puts me off?

Prissy eaters who literally wrinkle their noses and pucker their visages when presented with unfamiliar foods. I'm not talking about little children, either! We've all encountered adults like this, haven't we? If only they knew that expression makes any face highly unattractive, and is simply rude.

How much ruder if that expression was seen on the face of a senatorial, gubernatorial or presidential hopeful.

This is a wonderfully diverse land - that complexity reflected in food as well as people. A candidate would do well to show his or her comfort with that diversity at the gut level.