Last week, as John Kasich and Ted Cruz tried to relate to New Yorkers by devouring Italian food and matzoh, it felt like we were waiting for them to screw up. Like how Hillary Clinton maybe but probably not (sigh) screwed up when she had to swipe her card five times to get into the subway.
Look at the glee we took last week in chiding Kasich for eating pizza with a fork and knife, like Mayor Bill de Blasio before him, and Donald Trump before him. Or how Jimmy Fallon grilled Chris Christie for eating his M&Ms out of a box instead of the bag at a college basketball game. They came inside a bag, which was inside the box, so he just poured them from the bag into the box, and, yes, it’s confusing, and yes, it’s probably just an excuse to poke fun at Christie’s weight.
Politicians have always made food gaffes, unintentionally signaling they are hoity toity and/or unaware of regional customs, like when California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman “cut a chili dog into quarters with a plastic knife,” as the Los Angeles Times reported, or when John Kerry asked for Swiss cheese on his cheesesteak. Or that they’re un-American, as with Thomas Jefferson’s enjoyment of French food. Or simply that they have unconventional tastes, like Richard Nixon putting ketchup on cottage cheese.
“I don’t think we can avoid judging people by the way they eat,” says Ken Albala, professor of history and chairman of food studies at the University of the Pacific. “If someone makes a big mistake like that, even if you don’t say it out loud we’ve already made a judgment.”
But should we? At what point should food preferences affect our political or moral judgments?
God knows we subconsciously evaluate candidates on non-policy factors, from clothes to speech patterns to the way they say the word “huge.” Sex, real estate, tax returns — all areas of private life that affect public perception.
And food gaffes exist along a spectrum. The GOP race would (and probably should) look different if Cruz had stuffed bits of matzoh up his nose. But there are grayer areas. Does Donald Trump’s preference for Big Macs and Oreos serve as confirmation of his fear of the unknown? Maybe.
But I would argue for a high threshold of tolerance, one that’s accepting of incidents like eating pizza with forks. Customs and preferences can differ not only from person to person but across geography and time. Helen Zoe Veit, an associate professor at Michigan State University who focuses on the history of food and nutrition, notes that in the early 20th century, wealthy Americans ate bananas with forks and knives and asparagus with their fingers.
“The idea that some ways of eating are more ‘authentic’ than others relies on a very static idea about culture, as something that does not change,” says Jennifer Jensen Wallach, a history professor at the University of North Texas who wrote the book “How America Eats.”
Ragging on people’s eating methods is also antithetical to the progress we’ve made in the democratization of dining and the crossing of ethnic lines. “City of Gold,” the new documentary about L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold, explains how Roy Choi’s Kogi truck not only popularized the counterintuitive mixture of Korean flavors and tacos, but also the now-nationwide trend of eating from a truck, which in a more white-tablecloth era would have been seen as distasteful.
“If something becomes cool, people overcome any aversion to it,” Albala says. Even 20 years ago, he adds, many Americans saw sushi as gross. Part of embracing diversity is not being afraid to ask a waiter what “mofongo” means or to bite or cut into something in the “wrong way.”
Sure, much of our pizza-and-fork outrage is “mock ire,” as Politico described the Kasich incident – just the Internet trying to shield us from boredom. But our discussion of politicians’ private lives can sometimes affect how we see ourselves and each other. Like how, on a more serious note, the Anita Hill testimony – dramatized in the upcoming HBO movie “Confirmation” – became an entryway for many to discuss sexual harassment.
Idle chitchat about food in the workplace can easily cause discomfort when it becomes about whose lunch is more nutritious, or who’s eating more. At a previous office in L.A., where my co-workers and I prided ourselves on our worldliness, walking to Subway was only half-flippantly called the “walk of shame.”
So the next time we see a food “gaffe” – say, a candidate putting peanuts in their Dr Pepper, or chili on their spaghetti, show some restraint instead of mock ire. Because in certain regions, those customs could be delicacies – which, in fact, they are.