A few months ago, on a sunny, scorching Tuesday at the Iowa State Fair, Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was in the middle of a blitz to win over Iowa voters’ hearts through his stomach. When he bit into a pork chop, he really went for it: a big chomp with bright white teeth, his eyebrows diving in concentration as if gnawing on grilled meat were executing a flip on a high wire. Next came a bacon ball BLT, chomp, deep-fried Oreos, chomp chomp, and a swig of chocolate milk to wash it down. There were six Oreos in the basket, really too many, does anyone from the press corps want one? No? Is it an ethics thing? Since candidates are required by the Constitution to say every single bite of food they’ve ever tried is delicious, I took an Oreo from Mayor Pete’s proffered basket. It was good: fresh from the fryer, crispy on the outside, the usually crunchy Oreo crumbly and soft.
Buttigieg spied the U.Do.It Slush Factory and immediately forgot about the Oreos. “What do you suppose goes on at the U.Do.It Slush Factory?” he asked the surrounding press. No one knew. It turned out to be a truck lined with churning, see-through portholes of crystallized sugar water in a full spectrum of colors; U Do It by choosing which flavors U want.
Buttigieg decided on layers of red, white, and blue. He admitted that this was an obvious choice. In fact, everything he ate that day was an obvious choice, designed to convince voters that Pete Buttigieg was the obvious choice. The bacon balls and fried Oreos and gnawed-down pork chops were a maximalist performance of the absurd ritual that sits largely unexamined at the heart of presidential politics: eating your face off.
A fundamental tension in American politics is that we all know campaigning is one long flim-flam spectacle, yet we also want to vote for someone who isn’t a phony — someone who’s authentic. While evaluating a bunch of power-seeking performers based on their authenticity seems paradoxical, the value we place on authenticity is a shorthand for a core democratic concern: whether a candidate is saying what they actually believe, and whether their values are the same as our own.
It’s not especially difficult for a skilled politician to disguise their true beliefs, even over the course of multiple elections, with hundreds of policy plans, thousands of speeches, tens of thousands of handshakes or babies kissed. They’re seeking power, and are incentivized to say and do whatever it takes to convince us to give it to them. But it’s much more challenging to mask true disgust while eating or drinking something — say, a food or beverage that is deeply meaningful to you and your community. So it’s maybe not so surprising that one authenticity test, for many voters, is how a candidate eats.
Political eating can be cynical, even unbearably stupid, and the ability to wolf down pancakes and fried catfish and vanilla ice cream cones with convincing relish has nothing to do with governing. But restaurants are one of the few remaining mass communal experiences in American life, and they’re where candidates connect with voters who aren’t already convinced, where voters can interact with a candidate on their own turf. Eating in a small-town diner is a hyper-managed performance, but after performing their stump speech for the 23rd or 367th time, candidates risk real vulnerability walking into the local clam shack or barbecue joint. They can also communicate, knowingly and unknowingly, accurately and inaccurately, reams of information that indicate their real beliefs about class, race, gender, and region, based on precisely which barbecue joint or fish shack they visit, what they order there, and how they eat it. It makes a desperate sort of metaphorical sense to want to see a candidate eat and enjoy food that you also eat and enjoy; it’s one of the few ways a politician can allow actions to speak louder than words.
By eating in a relatable way, candidates don’t seek to convey their own humanity so much as they hope to embody the values of a Real American — an identity whose definition no one agrees on but everyone is very sure of, one nation under corn dogs, insatiable, with fried Oreos and pork chops for all.
Before the era of mass-media politics, when things were both more participatory and more openly corrupt, food and politics had a much more transactional relationship: In big machines like New York’s Tammany Hall, local politicians provided food and beer, and constituents provided votes. New York City Election Day was a huge, wild party, complete with bonfires. One underrated argument for making Election Day into a holiday is the fact that after voting, we could celebrate that right to vote, something America has yet to do on a mass scale in a full and just way.
Our earliest elections, when voting was restricted to landed white men, revolved around feasts. To vote, the men had to leave their land and come into town — why not have a party? In New England, especially Connecticut, election cakes provided a conciliatory civic place for women denied the franchise. They baked the naturally risen, spiced cake originally made when men had to muster for the British Army, and repurposed as election cake after the war for independence. By the middle of the 19th century, Southern elections were celebrated with massive barbecues — whose pitmasters were enslaved people, denied not only the franchise but any civil rights.
The election cake has disappeared, except for occasional food magazine nostalgia, and barbecue’s civic role mutated as black Southerners’ access to the franchise did. During Reconstruction, Election Day was celebrated by black men attending the barbecues as guests and voters. When they were disenfranchised, barbecues were repurposed to support churches and civil institutions. Later, barbecue restaurants fed the civil rights movement; now those restaurants, if they are still open, are important campaign stops.
Food, in other words, has long reflected the beauty and corruption and cruelty of American democracy. Rewarding people with food for voting has been illegal since 1948, so the relationship is now mediated through money, with fundraising events like the Iowa Democratic Party’s Polk County Steak Fry or, more commonly, private dinners where you can, say, pay $353,000 to sit with George Clooney. If you want to eat with a candidate nearby, you’d better be the kind of person who has zero need for free beer; it’s a privilege to dine while a candidate speaks, or at least that’s the idea. The beer and bonfires don’t sound so corrupt in retrospect.
With the rise of mass media, and the loss of election feasts, politicians replaced feeding everyday voters with symbolically eating everyday food in front of those voters. Franklin Roosevelt chowed down on a sandwich while sitting in a car during the 1932 campaign; Robert Kennedy crouched over a diner counter while managing his brother’s run for president; Ronald Reagan swung by an Alabama McDonald’s for a Big Mac in the 1984 race; Bill Clinton notoriously swung by McDonald’s as often as he could and ate almost everywhere else.
At first, this performance was disseminated through newspapers and television; a notable New York Times headline from 1976 described a presidential candidate’s visit to Katz’s as “A Rite of Spring: Jackson, in a Search For Ethnic Vote, Eats Ethnic Sandwich.” As social media took over, images of candidates at restaurants became more ubiquitous, now distributed by not just the media, but by campaign officials and even diners. Every restaurant visit can now be captured on someone’s phone and viewed anywhere from a personal social media account to CNN.
But even in an era when most of us carry screens in our pockets, and stare at other, bigger screens for hours each day, the nitty-gritty of national campaigning is still built around connecting with specific voters in a specific place, and every campaign has an entire team tasked with finding those connection-generating restaurants.
For the 2020 presidential primary, Democratic campaign staffers have been crossing key primary states on an extremely specific restaurant-scouting mission, tooling around the small towns of Iowa and New Hampshire, hunting for restaurants in closed-up-for-the summer hamlets and post-industrial towns. Not the Dunkin’ Donuts and Burger Kings and Culver’s just off the highway, but the restaurants holding out in the center of town — classic diners and fried seafood shacks and independent coffee shops, and maybe a taqueria or a brewery.
The conventions of authentic political eating require authentic restaurants serving authentic food. In the food world, the word authentic has been misused to the point of uselessness, often by knowing white people, but in the political world, the notion of an authentic restaurant conjures a very specific image: old-school, family-owned, and small-town, serving regional specialities from the middle of the 20th century or earlier. As campaign staffers search for these restaurants, they’ll order a small meal, maybe a coffee, and assess their surroundings with a bank robber’s precision: Who’s eating here, what are they ordering, what’s on the television? Where are the exits, where’s the good light, could a couple of buses park here? They might ask the server when the busiest times are. They snap a couple pictures on their phone, make some notes for the main office, and move on.
These staffers work as a part of the larger arm of campaigning known as advance. Advance’s job is a combination of event planning, nuts-and-bolts logistics, and political theater — crafting events, moments, and images for candidates and elected officials. Advance apertures depending on the size of the campaign; for a small, scrappy primary campaign, a single advance staffer might drive the candidate around the Iowa countryside in a rented minivan; for big national campaigns, they find rally venues, book hotels for candidates and traveling press, scout local organizations, and also track down restaurants for stops referred to at OTRs, an abbreviation for “off the record.” Some of these events were once closed to media, though with the rise of smartphones, that restriction largely disappeared, since anyone eating a hamburger is media now; these types of restaurant stops still frequently go unlisted on the official schedule for the day.
The secrecy is partly for safety reasons. Once a candidate has Secret Service protection, they never want to create a “sitting duck” situation in which a candidate is expected at an insecure location. But the bigger reason is to preserve whatever authenticity the restaurant could provide to the campaign in the form of genuine reactions from staff and diners. At a moment when you can follow a candidate on Instagram, post their memes on Facebook, and send them money after they send off an especially fire tweet, there are also relatively few ways for a person running for president to serendipitously encounter voters. You don’t want a coffee shop owner to invite 30 of her closest friends to smile, emphasizing the orchestrated nature of it all.
Because the stakes of eating authentically are so high, even a slight misstep can result in disaster. Think about it: You probably don’t remember all the times a candidate successfully ate water ice or meatloaf or cheese curds in your hometown; what you remember is when they got it wrong. The cock-ups can become the dominant anecdotes of the campaign, used to illustrate just how out of touch a candidate is. When Gerald Ford bit into a tamale, husk and all, outside the Alamo during the 1976 campaign, his sputtering was captured by eager cameras and broadcast his lack of familiarity with one of the oldest foods in the Americas. It maybe lost him Texas.
John Kerry’s infamous 2003 cheesesteak order at Pat’s in Philadelphia, where he ordered a cheesesteak hoagie with Swiss cheese, was trotted out as evidence of his elitism for the rest of the campaign. Photographer William Thomas Cain, who shot Kerry’s unfortunate eating of his unfortunate order, told me that when he heard the candidate ask for Swiss, he thought, “He just lost Philly.” When I told my mom I was working on this story, she laughed and said, “Like when Kerry ordered Swiss and it lost him Pennsylvania?” (We’re from Philly; he won by two points; my mom regrets the error.)
According to the people I spoke to who had put in time on Democratic advance teams, the Kerry gaffe is trotted out as what one advance veteran called “a learning moment” — Know Your Cheeses as a guiding principle of politics. A gaffe isn’t just a mistake; it’s a mistake where the candidate seems to reveal some larger truth about themselves that they’ve sought to hide. In the story credited with popularizing the Kerry cheesesteak incident, reporter Dana Milbank described him as a Boston Brahmin taking “dainty” bites; Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan compared Kerry’s eating style unfavorably to then-Gov. Ed Rendell, who when faced with a cheesesteak flipped a tie over his shoulder before digging in. LaBan wrote, “Even the bluest blood can suddenly become more human to the masses if he emerges from this two-fisted trial of appetite with a swagger and some juice on his loafers.” Advance people are responsible for making sure even the wealthiest and most privileged candidates get enough juice on their loafers, if that’s the way it has to be done.
Absolutely no one misses the Iowa State Fair, arguably the most iconic food stop on the presidential primary circuit. A lot of gaffe-like things involving food happened at the fair. Or, at least, weird things. Tulsi Gabbard declared she was vegan and then snacked on a non-vegan item from the fair’s lone vegetarian stand (bad advance). Cory Booker’s team had to run interference at the same stand to make sure they didn’t serve the senator anything but their lone vegan option, a fried PB&J (good advance). Andrew Yang wandered around greeting voters with a gnarled, shaggy, half-eaten turkey leg. Only straight white male candidates actually ate the phallic and photoshoppable corn dog on camera with a lack of self-consciousness; Bernie Sanders even fed a bite to his wife. Elizabeth Warren carried around a corn dog but never actually took a bite, maybe on purpose, maybe because she was so moshed by voters and press that trying to eat would have put her at physical risk. Marianne Williamson did the absolute weirdest thing, which was to not eat in public at all.
The Iowa State Fair is not important to the campaign cycle simply because every candidate shows up there over the span of a week to snarfle corn dogs and lay down a stump speech about Iowa values like hard work and ethanol. Most people I spoke to there didn’t care about the candidates at all — they were at the fair to spend time with family and friends, and to eat. This might seem like classic American political disengagement, but for lots of people in Iowa, the political circus regularly invades spaces they care about because politicians are trying to co-opt their emotional connections to a place. No wonder some people resist it. For the Iowans who come year after year, the fair holds their history, especially their state’s agricultural history, preserving a time when more people owned family farms than worked for the agribusiness that swallowed them up. The specific connections specific people have to the fair are often lost in national politics, which treats the fair like a synecdoche of a core American myth: that the best of our country is found in the rural and bucolic regions, which are also implicitly white. (A 1932 novel about the Iowa State Fair, titled, appropriately, State Fair, was made into a movie three different times in the 20th century.) That story was never true, and the further we move from that history, the more absurd it is that it still lives at the heart of our politics.
The state fair only lasts for two weeks a year, but campaign restaurants fit into a similar template, where candidates can both access specific, nostalgic voters and produce photos tying them to a romanticized version of history. When seeking the support of black voters, Democratic politicians embrace soul food, whether it’s Joe Biden visiting Dulan’s Soul Food in South Los Angeles, and taking the opportunity to slam a “send them back” chant at a Trump rally, or the now-familiar ritual of presidential candidates seeking an audience with Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s in Harlem, where the candidate eats a full plate of fried chicken and Sharpton sticks to plain, diet-friendly foods like dry toast. In the two earliest primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire, where the population is roughly 90 percent white, preferences shift to the restaurant overwhelmingly associated with the white working class: the diner.
Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown, Iowa, is the platonic ideal of a campaign stop restaurant: founded almost 100 years ago; located in a picturesque, lost-in-time building; and genuinely beloved by locals. It serves just one specialty, a loose meat sandwich which the restaurant calls a Maid-Rite: soft bun, utterly unseasoned moist steamed meat, pungent mustard, pickles, and onions. The meat is indeed loose, spilling all over the paper wrapper, a satisfying mess. Open since 1928 and in its current location since the 1950s, the restaurant is a single wraparound counter surrounding the kitchen, along with a custom-built wooden pie cabinet. On the wall, above a huge world map, is its slogan, a robust relic of archaic punctuation practices: “Go ‘round the world, but come back again…..”
On the day I visited, a laconic cook in his early 20s had opened 15 minutes early so a clutch of older white men could drink coffee and eat Maid-Rites in content silence. Other customers arrived in chatty pairs, all of them returning from out of town to get their Maid-Rite fix, which can only be had properly here in Marshalltown. Other Maid-Rites, which exist as franchises around Iowa and the greater Midwest, are suspect because they add seasoning to the meat. This Maid-Rite is much more careful about messing with tradition. (The restaurant held a vote on the back of customers’ receipts a few years back about whether to finally allow ketchup. Ketchup won.)
People don’t go to Taylor’s Maid-Rite because it’s famous, but because, as a restaurant serving a single humble sandwich shared around one big three-sided counter, it preserves Marshalltown’s communal, down-to-earth simplicity. A man who grew up in Marshalltown and now lives outside Minneapolis reveled in how these sandwiches have remained unchanged since he was a kid. He’s never had a bad one, and they always taste the same. That 90-year history they’ve got going on? He’s been around for 50 years of it. When presidential candidates stop into Taylor’s Maid-Rite, staff and regulars view them as curious, mildly annoying interlopers, their efforts to join the church of Maid-Rite inspiring blessings of their hearts. A candidate had come in recently, but the counter was full, so there was nowhere to sit. The cook recalled another candidate coming in off a bus with his name emblazoned across it years ago — that’s how you knew he was running for something. What was his name? No idea.
For as long as older white voters born in the middle of the 20th century are the dominant demographic in American politics, the most likely to vote and the least likely to be disenfranchised, the diners they grew up in or saw on TV will continue to be important. The use of the diner by reporters seeking to connect with the white working class has had decidedly mixed results, but they are useful to campaigns, which are not seeking truth or insight but symbolic power. Going to the restaurant that holds a community’s history lets candidates communicate that they understand what’s important much more powerfully than they could with words. That symbolic, emotional appeal, if handled deftly, can feel like a real type of understanding, one most people would describe as “authentic,” even if it’s obviously not.
Because the fact is, while diners are an essential form of American dining that I, personally, hope never die, they are not the way we eat anymore. Contemporary American communities live in other restaurant spaces. Marshalltown is also, like every town of any decent size in America, full of chain restaurants. Chains occupy an odd position in American political eating — simultaneously populist and globalist, they serve the food most Americans eat on a weekly basis yet are produced by faceless corporations located far from their communities. The novelty of political elites eating fast food, tapped by Reagan and Clinton in the ’80s and early ’90s, has long since been exhausted. One Democratic consultant who had worked on a number of local and national campaigns told me he never so much as allowed a campaign office to order Dominos. His staffers’ mission was to find a local pizza place and pick it up, making sure the business knew the campaign was buying its pizza and putting money into the local economy.
But even if the economics are uneasy and the chance for tapping into a community’s specific history are much lower, chain restaurants are growing in political importance — maybe even in their ability to confer authenticity. Regional chains, which don’t represent any one town but are often symbols of regional pride, have arguably already become useful campaign tools: Beto O’Rourke’s attention-grabbing, county-crossing Senate run in the Republic of Texas was defined by his love for the Texas chain Whataburger; he posted videos of himself skateboarding in its parking lot, and his campaign logo eerily resembled the chain’s spicy ketchup packets. Since 2008, largely Republican presidential contenders embraced the Midwestern, prominently Christian chain Pizza Ranch in Iowa. Mike Huckabee credits his low-cost Pizza Ranch circuit with winning him the 2008 Iowa caucus; in 2012, Michele Bachmann ate at Pizza Ranch 20 times, and Rick Santorum credited the chain with his victory. In 2016, the chain was another kind of bellwether. Trump visited a location once for 20 minutes, didn’t try the pizza or the chicken, and won the owner’s endorsement.
Speaking of, there are curiously few photos of Donald Trump eating while campaigning — his campaign famously eschewed restaurant stops and other trappings of retail, hand-shaking, baby-kissing politics — but those that do exist either feature him eating food from his own restaurants, which are arguably their own type of chain, or from utterly placeless national chains. One of the most iconic photographs of the current president during his norms-shredding campaign is of him about to eagerly dive into a bucket of KFC with a knife and fork in each hand, seated on his private jet. The imagined anti-elitist backlash (private plane! Knife and fork!) never materialized. The Trump taco bowl tweet, widely cited as a classic inauthentic food gaffe before the election, could also be read as a masterful troll. Ringing in Cinco de Mayo, an Americanized drinking holiday, by hunching over a Trump Tower taco bowl at his desk and declaring his love for Hispanics was an eerily perfect example of the worst kind of political pandering: wolfing down a taco to show that, well, you love Hispanics. The tweet also suggested a broader contempt, conscious or unconscious, for the idea of celebrating the culture of fellow Americans, especially via food, a feeling familiar to a Trump tweet’s real audience: resentful white people.
Donald Trump’s love of fast food, and his eager embrace of it as a political tool, is, despite the unbearable corporate placelessness of it all, a truer and more relatable presentation of how Americans eat now than a stop at a classic diner or even a regional chain. The candidate whose slogan is a pure and unadulterated call for nostalgia can also side with the forces stacking commerce near the interstate and hollowing out main streets, and their diners, because Trump’s appeal is all about winning, and the KFC has won.
In the run-up to the third-quarter fundraising deadline of 2019, Pete Buttigieg’s campaign Twitter account pushed out many, many short videos of everyday campaign moments, all of them ending with punny calls to action. A large number featured the candidate eating or drinking: Buttigieg drinking canned coffee, Buttigieg and a box of Krispy Kreme, Buttigieg munching a chip, Buttigieg and the butter cow, Buttigieg and that damn pork chop.
The videos seem to catch an unguarded moment, not performative eating but the normal kind. They’re a new form of political eating, not meant to connect with a specific voter in a specific place, but to speak in the emerging vernacular of internet eating. (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the superstar congresswoman from New York, more or less invented this type of political messaging when she began cooking and talking policy on Instagram live.) The images resemble errant snaps you take of friends just hanging out, where what they’re eating isn’t even really the point. Give money to Mayor Pete, these images seem to say, because he’s a normal guy who just happens to like donuts and to be running for president, not an ambitious, wonky politician armed with consultant lingo from his days at McKinsey — which he still won’t talk about — and who’s wanted the highest office in the land since his days at Harvard.
The Buttigieg campaign is uniquely confident in its IPA and junk food messaging, too — it was the only campaign to allow Eater photographer Gary He to document a 36-hour campaign trail diet for this publication. In the most predictable turn of events possible, a photo from that story of Buttigieg eating a piece of cinnamon roll like a chicken wing went viral. Equally predictably, the photo’s oddness was a fluke. Seen as part of a series, it seems much less deranged; He believes Buttigieg broke the roll into pieces because he was was wary of getting icing on his face while being photographed. Now that Buttigieg has emerged as a front-runner, he is facing mounds of scrutiny over the disjuncture between his supposed Midwestern, everyday appeal and his privileged background, as he attempts to sell himself as a unity candidate despite a lack of support from a core Democratic constituency: black voters. The cinnamon roll moment could become Swiss on cheesesteak, suggesting the unity candidate is unfamiliar with a comfort food every American agrees on. Or the photo could merely be subsumed into other gaffes, like the hopelessly corny campaign dance developed by Buttigieg’s conspicuously white supporters. Like candidates, gaffes can go all the way or fizzle out; there is a shocking amount of stories from 2016 about John Kasich’s terrifying dedication to stuffing his face, emphasizing how hard he was trying to gain attention from voters, and how little they cared. Now, no one cares to remember.
As we lurch further and further into the 21st century, I wonder what types of restaurants will join places like Taylor’s Maid-Rite to confer authenticity, if that is really a concept we are doomed to prioritize in our politics. Maid-Rite is a treasure, but it’s far from the only notable independent restaurant in Marshalltown. There’s Zeno’s Pizza, serving a thin, classic Midwestern pie; there’s Jack’s Pho House, offering Vietnamese, Laotian, and Thai cuisine; and there are several taquerias and grocery stories, including the huge Zamora Fresh Market, with a restaurant in the back. On Sunday morning, there were freshly cooked chickens and carnitas on display in a warmer for take-out, ready for the post-church rush; a man in well-worn work boots bent over a bowl of menudo for a different kind of Sunday worship. Zamora Fresh is a community pillar, maybe without the fame and history of Taylor’s Maid-Rite, but it could certainly be the place later landmarked by a local historical commission or visited by locals returning home. As the Democratic field prepares to run against a president who’s made demonizing Mexico and Mexicans an essential part of his campaign, visiting Mexican restaurants can also create startling new political moments; an LA Times story from August about Kamala Harris’s Iowa tour depicted Harris in an Iowa taqueria, consoling a young woman afraid her parents might be taken away by ICE.
Asian-American restaurants occupy an even less visible space in the campaign firmament, despite the rising power of Asian Americans in our culture and politics, including the candidacy of Andrew Yang. One Asian-American advance veteran said she was torn about whether candidates should be going to more. On one hand, absolutely, but she hated the idea of seeing Chinese restaurants tokenized or exoticized in the way that’s so common. She also imagined an entire horror universe of gaffes unfolding at the prospect of using chopsticks, or not using chopsticks, or really any wavering about the choice at all.
Maybe we’ll be nostalgic for this era of performative eating sooner than we think — for our obsession with something as abstract as authenticity, for the fun of seeing Buttigieg eating breakfast sweets like barbecue. The likelihood that food shortages could shape our politics in the 21st century is greater than any of us would like to admit. Many stump speeches at the state fair noted that Iowa farmers, battered by rain and floods all spring, already knew about climate change. At the Iowa Pork Producers tent, none of the volunteers seemed concerned about a lack of abundance. But people closer to farming do think differently about what it takes to put food on the table. The volunteer in charge of the pork belly smoker, Ty Rosbury, said Kamala Harris, who had just left in a storm of cameras, had performed admirably. He liked to watch all the candidates cook — you can tell who’s spent time behind a grill, and who hasn’t, real quick — and to him, it seems as good a test as any. If they can feed themselves, at least they have a chance of feeding the rest of us.
In Harlan, Iowa, the restaurant Milk & Honey hosted Elizabeth Warren twice in the same day. The candidate was visiting the organic farm associated with the cafe, Rosmann Family Farms, and came through afterwards with her whole press corps to meet and greet. But the restaurant’s manager, James Calkins, told me she also came in for breakfast without announcing anything. He said he appreciated her coming by for lunch, but really valued seeing her at breakfast, when she wasn’t performing. He supported Bernie in 2016, and hadn’t made up his mind yet. But he valued the chance to see Warren not dressed up or surrounded by press, just an everyday person having breakfast with her son. She had the breakfast skillet, a local favorite, though she asked for hers, appallingly, without onions.