Second in an occasional series about the eating habits of the presidential candidates.
When Bernie Sanders first discussed running for the highest office in the land, family members suggested ways they might help. One obvious strategy: They could keep life sane in Burlington, Vt., and not “rock the boat at home,” recalls Carina Driscoll, his stepdaughter. But they also wondered, “How can we make it supportive and nourishing?”
They came up with one answer after tagging along with the junior senator from the Green Mountain State on some campaign trips. Early on, at least, he was eating heavy food, cheesecake included, often late at night. Thanks to some family intervention, by the time of Iowa’s Democratic caucuses on Feb. 1, his hotel spread included turkey sandwiches, pineapple and strawberries. On a recent charter flight, Sanders, 74, was observed sipping a millennial-friendly blueberry smoothie. Almonds, oranges and salads are now typically within easy reach.
The self-styled democratic socialist with the unremarkable haircut and dark suits to match doesn’t present himself as someone who cares much about what he consumes. Sanders can easily work right through lunch, people close to him say. Yet some digging into his diet reveals a dedicated carnivore who likes to grill when he can, keeps locally raised meat in the house, craves tomatoes in season and fruit preserves anytime, and orders tandoori pork at an Indian standby when in Burlington.
Is Sanders a reluctant gourmet?
“If by foodie you mean someone who appreciates where food comes from and enjoys quality food, then Bernie is a foodie,” says Driscoll, whose stepfather introduced legislation in Congress allowing states to require labels on foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But he isn’t reading restaurant reviews to keep up on the latest openings, and “he doesn’t require an amuse-bouche,” she says, referring to the bite-size welcome some upscale chefs send to diners. “He doesn’t even know what that is.”
When he’s not in campaign mode, Sanders starts his day with Raisin Bran, cherry juice and an English muffin if he’s at home, or bacon and eggs if he eats out, says his wife, Jane Sanders, a former president of Burlington College. While reports of her husband’s grocery shopping have been overstated in the media, she says, “he loves the opportunity to do regular things.”
In the kitchen, that includes making a stir-fry of chicken, mushrooms and onions or grilling a steak (medium rare for him, pinker for her, neither of them approaching the well-done preferences of, say, Republican front-runner Donald Trump). His go-to dinner? “It depends on his mood,” but at the top of the list would be prime rib, corn on the cob, broccoli and fresh bread. For Christmas, the Sanderses have given their children farm-produce subscriptions in the form of community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares. “We reap the benefits,” Jane Sanders says, including those fresh tomatoes the candidate loves and a “Feel the Bern” salsa his stepdaughters whipped up this month and sent off with campaign staff members to fuel the couple.
Typically on hand in the senator’s fridge and pantry: blueberries, avocados, 1 percent milk and preserves for those English muffins — a stash seemingly ordered up by a dietitian. (Hold the jam, maybe.)
When Sanders imbibes, he goes for red wine, preferably pinot noir. For basic hydration, the candidate whom an MSNBC host once misidentified as “Bernie Sandwiches” prefers water in glass, not plastic, bottles.
So far, so — simple. And democratic, emphasis on the lowercase “d.”
Sour news for pastry chefs, though: Those late-night cheesecakes aside, “he’s not big into sugar,” says his wife, who is.
That said, the Democratic candidate reviewed as “wonderful” a cool confection created in his honor by Ben Cohen, the liberal co-founder of Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Cohen, who has known Sanders since he was Burlington’s mayor, came up with the idea when he was out stumping for Sanders and people asked whether a special flavor might be forthcoming. Cohen responded with Bernie’s Yearning: a thin disk of chocolate, representing America’s wealthy 1 percent, topping a pint of mint ice cream, illustrating “the rest of us,” says Cohen, who churned out a limited edition of 50 or so pints in his home kitchen. Consumers are encouraged to break up the thin top layer and mix it in with the base.
Ice cream is just one of the products to emerge from Sanders’s presidential run. Zero Gravity, a craft brewery in Vermont, has released a beer in his honor. Bernie Weisse is described by the company as “a slightly sour and forward-thinking ale.” A hot sauce made in Brooklyn, Sanders’s birthplace, piggybacks on his supporters’ catchphrase, “Feel the Bern.” A dollar from the sale of every $10 bottle of Tango Chile Sauce with a Sanders-themed label goes to the campaign.
As far as restaurants are concerned, the politician seems to be loyal to his constituents. Sanders’s taste in Burlington venues skews to places that have been around for a while, including Sweetwaters, a 35-year-old American bistro, and India House, which opened three decades ago. The family also gathers at A Single Pebble, which opened in 2002, for Chinese food. (By all accounts, the man fighting for a $15 federal minimum wage tips well: 20 percent.)
More-modest restaurants have been backdrops for two significant events in Sanders’s life. In 1988, the candidate proposed to his wife in the parking lot of a Friendly’s after the two had hot-fudge sundaes there. And the couple were seated at a Denny’s, where they like to go with their grandchildren, when Jane Sanders finally agreed that her husband should run for the presidency. (The target of a class-action lawsuit charging racism in 1994, the family-friendly restaurant is now praised for its diversity.)
Since then, visits to several soul-food establishments — Sylvia’s Restaurant with activist Al Sharpton in New York’s Harlem, Busy Bee Cafe with rapper Killer Mike in Atlanta, where Sanders ate fried chicken — have been a way for the candidate to connect with African American voters. In a lighthearted interview over a soul-food spread with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central, Sanders donned a cap bearing the message “Black-eyed peas matter.”
The son of a Polish paint salesman, Sanders grew up in New York without a lot of money but with plenty of immigrants as neighbors. When Jane Sanders is asked how his youth might have influenced his tastes, she says that “he likes bagels and lox” but goes on to say that food back then “wasn’t a big thing. It was more about everyone eating early and together.”
Between rallies and primaries, “we love having the kids drop by for breakfast or dinner” in Burlington, she says. Bringing the tribe together “is definitely his idea.” The couple’s children make the process easy, shopping and cooking so their parents don’t have to do anything but sit down and eat. (Cellphones and media broadcasts aren’t on the menu, Driscoll says. Sanders “comes home to be grounded.”)
“I want this to go on forever,” says Jane Sanders, who must surely have fantasized about life in the White House. “I don’t have to shop or cook!”