Food often a tool for candidates

Sunday, September 2, 2012
Any political candidate would be happy to be photographed eating a hot dog like this. With its red peppers, white onions and blueberry ketchup, it exudes patriotism. (TOM HARTE)

According to Nelson Rockefeller, four-time governor of New York and the 41st vice president of the United States, "No candidate for any office can hope to get elected in this country without being photographed eating a hot dog."

His comment points to a truth long known to politicians: what we eat says a lot about us, or, as the 19th-century French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin put it, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."

Thus, candidates for public office go out of their way to be seen wolfing down the right foods. In the words of Jack Hitt of the New York Times, "Food is to the modern candidate what a childhood spent in a log cabin was to 19th-century politicians -- a metaphor for being in touch with the life of the common voter."

The hot dog may be the archetypal example of this principle. A millionaire like Rockefeller, who could afford filet mignon at every meal, knew he had to show voters that he enjoyed the lowly frankfurter. FDR, another millionaire, also understood, even serving hot dogs to the king and queen of England during a White House visit.

Though food can be a powerful rhetorical tool connecting candidates to voters, injecting it into a campaign can also backfire, even when fare as simple as hot dogs is involved. Thus, George McGovern, campaigning for the Democratic nomination in New York's borough of Queens in 1972, failed to impress the city's Jewish voters as he had hoped when ordering a kosher dog at one of the local food stands. Apparently oblivious to Jewish dietary laws, he ordered a glass of milk to go with it.

A food faux pas like this can end up conveying exactly the opposite of the message intended. For example, in 1976 Gerald Ford, campaigning in San Antonio and hoping to curry favor with Mexican-American voters, made sure photographers caught him eating a tamale during a visit to the Alamo. Alas, he neglected to first remove the corn husk wrapper containing the tamale and instead bit right into it, revealing that he was not all that conversant with Hispanic foods after all.

Gastronomic embarrassments like these know no party boundaries and have a long history. Even as far back as the birth of the Republic, Thomas Jefferson's penchant for French cuisine prompted Patrick Henry to brand him "a man unfaithful to his native victuals." The current campaign has already seen its share of culinary controversies too, ranging from Mitt Romney's request for a "sub" in the heart of Philadelphia's hoagie country to renewed emphasis on Barack Obama's admission in his memoir that as a child in Indonesia he ate not hot dogs, but dog meat.

Clearly, in political campaigns, it's not just the voters who need to be wary about what they swallow.

Red, White and Blue Hot Dogs

Red peppers, white onions, and blueberry ketchup make this hot dog patriotic enough for any political candidate. The recipe is adapted from

3 tablespoons minced shallot

2 cloves minced garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 plums, peeled, pitted, and chopped

3 cups blueberries

1 and 1/2 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1 and 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 red peppers, cut into strips

1 large white onion, cut into strips

6 chicken sausages

6 hot dog buns

Cook garlic and shallots in olive oil over medium-high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Add plums, blueberries, brown sugar, vinegar, ginger and allspice. Season with salt and pepper to taste and continue to cook about five minutes, stirring often. Reduce heat to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until blueberries have broken down and sauce has thickened, about 15 minutes. Stir in lemon juice. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours. Saute peppers and onions until softened, about 10 to 12 minutes. Cook sausages until heated through and toast buns. Place sausages on buns and top with peppers, onions and blueberry ketchup.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, MO 63702-0699.

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