I first tasted arugula in the mid-1970s, when Larry Forgione was still cooking at the River Café. Sitting there beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, charmed by the view and by my date, I was astonished to feel such a frisson when I bit into the peppery greens. I might have predicted the passion for arugula that followed, but I could never have foreseen the political associations that would arise. In this election year, the press has been gleefully slicing and dicing the presidential candidates over what they eat, or fail to, and in the process arugula has been liberally smeared. Yet food choices are not so simple, and each time the pundits chide Hillary Clinton for eating a Drumstick cone or celebrate John McCain for liking enchiladas or mock Barack Obama for mentioning arugula in Iowa, they patronize us all. Americans’ tastes are far more nuanced and complex than they’re made out to be.
The foods that we eat signal to others who we are. Therefore, any American politician who hopes to be elected must chow down on “real food” with “real people” to prove that he or she is also real. Last fall the Times showed how all three major candidates communed with the people by running photographs of Obama biting into a corndog, Clinton licking a chocolate-and-nut-coated ice-cream bar, and McCain inserting a slice of pizza into his mouth. Such images are a staple of American politics, as basic as baby kissing. They persist as a kind of test by which our potential leaders not only demonstrate their healthy appetites but also show they have the common touch, meaning that they don’t turn up their noses at the foods Americans like to eat in excess. No wonder Obama was roundly criticized for choosing jamón Ibérico instead of Philly cheesesteak at Philadelphia’s Italian Market. What was he thinking, to choose expensive foreign ham, when he could have shown his solidarity with the city by biting into a gooey, cholesterol-laden sandwich with Cheez Whiz?
The foods we eat signal who we think we are (often our lowest common denominator), but they also signal who we want to be, and this aspirational part of the equation is the more interesting. At a time when Americans face either an overabundance of food or a dearth of nutritious products, most of us aspire to eat more healthily and naturally. For those who can afford it, that sometimes means turning down Cheez Whiz in favor of artisanally cured ham. Obama offers a vision of a slimmer, healthier America. To imply, as some commentators have done, that he is less “authentic” because he does not chow down at every opportunity, is to reproach him for making a public food choice that is based on something other than cynicism and political expediency.
Barack Obama is of a different generation, one for whom arugula is not so strange, and his family actually tries to eat healthily. The press that loved Bill Clinton for his Mac attacks—for not being slimmer than thou—has had some trouble adjusting to Obama’s more moderate inclinations. They check to see whether he has finished his beer and report his failure as national news. But good health has too long been equated with a big appetite.
Candidates are expected to belly up at the groaning boards of political rallies, as they traditionally have, to enjoy the emblematic American pancake breakfasts, clambakes, and potluck suppers. But between feasts they should be allowed to fall back into healthier modes of eating without being criticized as out of touch with the people. As a nation we have become increasingly sophisticated, even catholic, in our tastes, and our newfound embracing of all sorts of foods is something that should be lauded. With ever more dollars spent on doughnuts and fried chicken during election years, we should stop to contemplate the meaning of our political appetites and consider how the candidates shape up—not only metaphorically, but in a literal sense.
So what is the lesson here? It’s possible to seem of the people by breaking bread with them, and the nominees would be wise to sample the regional specialties in the whistlestops they visit and at the church socials they attend. They should make a point of praising the local delicacies they are offered, but no one expects the candidates to clean their plates. Common sense tells us that potential leaders must take care not to spurn the aesthetic preferences of the people they want to win over, lest they themselves be spurned. However, it’s not enough for a leader to be simply of the people. The best candidate will also be for the people, by demonstrating that healthy food and healthy eating habits can change the shape of the nation, both metaphorically and literally.