Saturday, August 23, 2008
It lurks in the Produce Department, sneaky-silent, all tied up in a bunch, seemingly minding its own business even as it threatens to change the course of the 2008 presidential election. It is arugula. Some call it rocket, or roquette. It's a trendy salad ingredient, often viewed as a type of lettuce, though the government lists it as an herb.
Without question, it is the most politically explosive of the leafy greens.
At the loftiest levels of American politics, there are operatives who are eager to play the arugula card. When Barack Obama's campaign skewered John McCain this week for forgetting how many houses he owns, the McCain camp responded by dropping the a-word on him -- twice.
First, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers sent out an e-mail describing Obama as "a guy who worries about the price of arugula." Later in the day, Rogers said in an interview, "In terms of who's an elitist, I think people have made a judgment that John McCain is not an arugula-eating, pointy-headed-professor type."
Obama's arugula problem dates to last summer, to an offhand remark in Iowa. He was saying that farmers could make good money planting specialty crops rather than just corn and soybeans. He asked his audience if anyone had seen the price of arugula lately at Whole Foods. Pundits howled: Arugula! Whole Foods! As if the mooing masses of Iowans had ever heard of such a thing or such a place!
The arugula controversy raises an obvious question: When did arugula become the undisputed symbol of elitist food -- what you might call the anti-cabbage? And what about the other lettuces? Can a politician seeking to connect with ordinary people safely eat anything other than iceberg?
We all know, intuitively, that kale is on the elitist side of the elitist-vulgarian divide, but what about romaine?
"There's nothing wrong with eating arugula," argues May Bogdanovic, owner of Arucola, an Italian restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. She says her restaurant is named after the Italian word for the leafy green, with an extra "A" at the beginning just for flair. "It's one of the healthier leaf lettuces. . . . If Obama is worried about the price of arugula, then obviously he has a healthier diet than McCain."
Robert Rossi, co-owner of Field Fresh Farms, a major grower of arugula and other greens in Watsonville, Calif., also defends Obama against the elitist-salad-eater slur.
"I think he has very good taste buds. And I'm a Republican," Rossi says.
The rise of arugula, Rossi says, can be traced in part to a big E. coli scare that damaged the spinach industry a few years ago. Some buyers simply wanted to switch from spinach to arugula.
But there's a broader consumer trend: Americans are no longer content with iceberg lettuce drenched in Thousand Island dressing. Brian Todd, president of the Food Institute, a nonprofit research service, says Americans are demanding more products from their supermarkets. He scoffs at the notion that arugula is elitist.