On a recent episode of The Sporkful podcast, host Dan Pashman gets into the nitty-gritty of why candidates like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton aren't often spotted eating in public. It's pretty simple, really: the history of gaffes associated with eating food "incorrectly" or choosing the wrong dish (New York over Chicago-style pizza, for instance) means today's politicians are consciously choosing not to eat in public.
Pashman delved further into the topic on Slate's The Gist podcast. "Food is a shorthand for authenticity," said Pashman. "It's like, 'If this guy — or woman — can eat a cheesesteak just like I do, then they must be a normal person and I can relate to them.'"
That being said, politicians who do choose to nosh on an authentic cheesesteak risk ordering the wrong toppings, or eating it in an untraditional way. That fear often prevents them from going the "regular guy" route.
Frankly, the campaign life isn't an easy one. It's difficult to keep track of the local specialty — let alone how to properly eat it — when you've visited 10 cities in three days. When I was reporting on the 2012 presidential race for another outlet, I watched Michelle Bachmann speak at a local sandwich shop in Jacksonville, Florida. After shaking hands and taking photos, Bachmann took the microphone and proudly exclaimed that she was "thrilled to be here at Subway!" The problem, of course, was that she wasn't speaking at a Subway, but an independently owned sandwich shop called Angie's Subs. She later tried to rectify her mistake by leading the crowd in a chant of "Angie's Subs! Angie's Subs!" but the damage had already been done.
It's gaffes like these that prevent candidates from getting too comfortable around food, Pashman noted on The Gist. "Mike Huckabee says this: so often, he sees politicians who are so afraid of making a mistake, that their biggest mistake becomes being afraid of making a mistake."
That's because politicians are so often made fun of for eating. Remember when Chris Christie was caught consolidating two packages of M&M's during a college basketball game? Or when John Kasich ate pizza with a fork? Chowing down on a local specialty might make a politician look more relatable, but only at the risk of being turned into a meme.
According to Pashman, there's only one photo in existence of Donald Trump eating — that of the noted germaphobe digging into New York pizza with a knife and fork (which, goes without saying, is not the proper way to dine on NY-style pizza.)
Other food photos — the infamous "Trump taco bowl" tweet, or the photo of him preparing to chow down on McDonald's — don't actually show him eating. Clinton, too, is rarely seen eating in public. When faced with cheesecake, she points at it without taking a bite. When she strides through the line at Chipotle, she does so in a coat and dark glasses — about as incognito one can be when ordering a burrito bowl.
We do know Clinton likes food, though. Her passion for hot sauce has been well-documented, though a cursory search for photos of her actually dousing her food in the stuff turns up no results.
The culinary rules that apply to Clinton are a little different, of course. There are all sorts of unwritten assumptions about what women should and shouldn't eat. Were she to dare to order a double bacon cheeseburger with a milkshake, for instance, we would fully expect her rival to mention it.
Of course, politicians of all genders — and all political stripes — have long been mocked mercilessly for their eating habits. Take corn dogs, for instance. Pashman's advice to candidates? Don't go near them. "Of all phallic foods, corn dogs may be king," he said, adding that the number of memes and gifs created as a result of Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann eating corn dogs serve "as a cautionary tale for us all."
• The Sporkful [iTunes]
• Pity the Peckish Politician [Slate]