There were many stories from former staffers of Amy Klobuchar that portray her as a difficult boss. But the tale of the Minnesota senator eating a salad with a comb, that’s the one that has become iconic. You probably already know it: An aide didn’t manage to bring utensils for a meal aboard a plane, and so the senator dug a comb out of her bag and proceeded to eat with it. What might have been an exercise in creative problem solving was ruined by Klobuchar’s belittling of the aide and then having the staffer wash the comb afterwards.
It’s memorably weird—so memorable that Klobuchar, who is now running for president, was compelled to diffuse the anecdote with a self-deprecating joke at Washington’s Gridiron Dinner. I’d venture the story is all the more memorable because it centers around a meal.
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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 eat 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 in 2016.
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.
No one perhaps received more such mockery than Rubio, who, during his response to the 2013 State of the Union address found himself parched and reached off screen momentarily to grab a water bottle, and then gulped some down mid-speech. In the gesture, he committed a normal act of human self-maintenance, but its awkwardness was so profound that even in the moment, advisers knew it was an error. Sullivan says that Rubio had just delivered the same speech seamlessly in Spanish, and then chose not to break before launching into the English version. As his mouth got drier, Sullivan says, “the five of us who were there knew we should have put the bottle two feet closer.” But it was the reach, grab and gulp, coupled by Rubio’s admirable attempt to maintain eye contact with the camera, that made for such devastating GIFs. “Anything that is a 4-second visual is made to be repeated over and over again,” Sullivan says. Though the moment was brief, it continued to pop up as Rubio pursued the nomination, and Trump made mocking reference to it while campaigning three years later.
Nothing quite that viral has happened with this year’s crop of candidates—yet—but, especially at this early point in the race, people are poking around for clues about who each candidate really is. We look for meaning in the candidates’ food choices—perhaps hoping to discover how they act in those human moments when the barriers come down, but also, recognizing that the barriers might still be up, to discover what their meal choices might say about their politics, or strategy.
Food incidents have always had a strong confirmation bias: They tend to underscore the prevailing character sketch of the candidates. John Kerry underscored his image as a vaguely French elitist when he ordered a cheesesteak in Philadelphia with Swiss cheese, not Cheez Whiz; and though 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 (likely truthful) claim on a hip-hop morning show that that she carried hot sauce everywhere she went—à la Beyonce—was seen as pandering for black support.
This year, candidates’ eating choices are already being scrutinized for signs of inauthenticity—perhaps more than ever. Kirsten Gillibrand got a little heat when she tried to eat fried chicken at a South Carolina chicken and waffles spot. She started using a fork, but then looking around at her neighbors, checked in with the restaurant owner to see if she should eat the chicken with her fingers as well, and after getting the go ahead, did so. “Is there anything Gillibrand has done that is not contrived and opportunistic?” tweeted New York’s Frank Rich. (Using utensils on hand-held food is generally a no-no—recall Tony Blair using cutlery on a hot dog and Bill de Blasio forking at a slice of pizza.)
The Onion even poked fun at the phenomenon with a recent headline: “Bored Iowa Town Trying To Convince Kirsten Gillibrand It Local Tradition To Eat Live Tarantula.” “Every presidential candidate who comes through town does it,” a character in the article, which Gillibrand gamely tweeted, calls out. “Obama did it, Bill Clinton did it. Oh, and they all swallow it, too—so don’t spit it out!”
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 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.
Politicians get judged for their broader eating habits, too. Some on the right are pouncing on Cory Booker’s vegan diet, hoping it might alienate him from middle America by suggesting he wants to take away Americans’ beloved grilled meats. “Booker wants to take away your hot dog on the Fourth of July,” said Fox host Jesse Watters.
This year, though, some Democrats with large social media platforms are experimenting with how to use food as a net positive, rather than a potential gaffe in the making.
In their videos, Ocasio-Cortez and O’Rourke convey the sense that politicians are real people who do laundry or cook approachable meals at home. AOC used Instagram stories to chat informally about policy while preparing black-bean soup in her Instapot. O’Rourke did a Facebook live stream cooking chicken piccata in his cluttered family kitchen while his daughter popped in and out with her pet snake. Mundanity, it seems, has replaced folksiness in convincing voters that a candidate is authentic. Food is an important part of that.
Other candidates have taken note. “The zeitgeist calls for me to livestream the blow by blow here cooking dinner but then you’d discover that I’m about as useful as Buddy in this process,” wrote Pete Buttigieg about an Instagram shot of his husband wielding tongs to plate what looks like a salmon dinner while their dog Buddy looks on. Harris has stuck so far to showing holiday cooking with family and friends. Gillibrand shares recipes for cobbler. (Bernie Sanders, who never wants to be seen as trivial, doesn’t indulge in Instagram food imagery, nor does Biden, who at last count only had 12 images on his grid.) But this can backfire, too—some dinged Elizabeth Warren for trying too hard to seem relatable after awkwardly opening a beer on a recent livestream.
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. Buttigieg periodically documents various meals with joyfully unpolished photos, and it seems to be working for him. Warren may want to choose another way to appear approachable. Ah! Perhaps she already has.