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Politically correct eating on the campaign trail

By Matthew Jacob, Special to CNN
  • Matthew Jacob says elections and food are inextricably linked
  • He says what and how candidates eat on the trail can score them points or derision
  • Obama mocked over arugula remark; Meg Whitman cut a chili dog with a knife
  • Jacob: But it's after the campaign is over that the indigestion arrives

Editor's note: Matthew Jacob is the co-author, with his brother Mark, of "What the Great Ate," published by Three Rivers Press.

(CNN) -- Between now and Election Day, candidates for public office will remind us how impossible it is to separate politicking from eating. Food is everywhere on the campaign trail. Large-scale dinners raise millions of dollars for candidates. Empty pizza boxes litter campaign offices, reminders of the power of pepperoni to fuel volunteers' efforts.

Every election cycle candidates have learned that how they eat -- not just how they vote -- can become part of the debate.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker won the Republican nomination for governor this year partly by portraying himself as a "brown-bag guy" who lunches on ham sandwiches.

And while Mike Montandon campaigned this year to become Nevada's governor, his wife, Antoinette, offered a tasty testimonial to his character. "He is always so complimentary of whatever I cook, and he eats it," she declared.

At the same time, opportunities for food faux pas are everywhere. Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, but months before that vote, the future president's attempt to relate to the state's farmers fell flat. "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and seen what they charge for arugula?" Obama asked the baffled Iowa farmers, many of whom were unfamiliar with the leafy salad green. Whole Foods had no stores in the state.

And Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief executive who is seeking to become California's next governor, was served a chili dog during a campaign stop and may have missed a chance to connect with ordinary voters. The Los Angeles Times explained how Whitman "cut a chili dog into quarters with a plastic knife and took a bite, pinky finger extended."

Food matters can reach into the campaigns in strange ways, too. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin's re-election campaign recently aired a television ad in which the South Dakota congresswoman distances herself from other House members. One of the problems with her fellow incumbents, she declares in the ad, is that "they like to eat and eat and eat."

Of course, there's nothing new about political figures taking the heat for what they eat.

Thomas Jefferson's passion for French food prompted criticism that he was "unfaithful to his native victuals." In an election campaign during the 1920s, Chicago Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson assailed his challenger as a sloppy eater who dined with "eggs in his whiskers, soup on his vest."

And who can forget the ribbing President George H.W. Bush took when he complained about the wrong food that kept showing up on his dinner table.

"I do not like broccoli," he declared with Dr. Seuss-like clarity. "I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm president of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli."

Can food preferences give one candidate the upper hand? In 1928, Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith seemed to think so.

After his Republican rival, Herbert Hoover, called chocolate ice cream one of his favorite treats, Smith countered by announcing that he liked all flavors of ice cream. Catherine Smith backed up her husband: "I've never seen him favor one kind more than another."

Hoover the chocolate lover won the election easily.

On the other hand, some candidates use their eating habits as a way for voters to measure their character. In 1942, Life magazine introduced voters to a congressional candidate in Oregon so busy he "never eats breakfast." And this spring, the New York Times noted that state New York Assemblyman Joseph Saladino went on a diet and stopped eating manicotti.

Election campaigns also can affect voters' eating habits. During the 2004 presidential campaign, some Republicans stopped using Heinz ketchup because of the company's link to the wife of Democratic nominee John Kerry. In one month alone, a company producing W Ketchup -- named for George W. Bush -- sold about 70,000 bottles.

Eventually, of course, a political campaign ends. But the eating and deal-making continue, often in the same location.

"Every major New Jersey political decision is made in diners," ex-Gov. Jim McGreevey wrote of his state.

Some candidates elected November 2 will find it easier to legislate than to lunch. Republican Sen. Mark Hanna of Ohio, who served during the early 1900s, suffered from chronic indigestion. He once confided that his life's ambition was to eat "the finest dishes that could be prepared" and then "have the work of digestion devolve upon some Democrat."

More than a century later, Hanna's wish may come true. If the polls are correct, voters will soon deliver a dose of indigestion to the Democrats.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matthew Jacob.