During a recent town hall meeting in Texas, Hillary Clinton let her audience in on the secret of how she stays alert during those long nights on the campaign trail. Surprisingly, Clinton?s secret isn?t coffee, No Doz or the energizing force of the American Dream.
No, when discussing her solution to her campaign-related forced insomnia, she remarked, ?I eat a lot of hot peppers. They keep me healthy. They keep me going, and they remind me of South Texas.?
Clinton?s revelation of her energy food of choice was probably just a benign overshare, but a few observers have speculated that she had an ulterior motive in discussing her secret. These critics feel Hillary?s mention of hot peppers was an effort to gain the respect of Hispanic voters.
It would be truly unsettling if this were her true motivation in making the comment; the idea that what a candidate eats could persuade a group of citizens to vote a certain way is insulting.
Nevertheless, the mere fact that such speculation exists is evidence that food is a part of political discourse. Although voters do not scrutinize dietary choices as closely as they look at speeches and campaign websites, people do talk about what politicians eat.
Often, a candidate?s choice of cuisine is an attempt to show his or her own political identity.
A less absurd example of this phenomenon than the recent Hot Pepper Gate is the State Fair. Anybody who has ever been to one of these gloriously greasy gatherings knows politicians love to make appearances there. Often, these publicity stunts involve candidates both making or eating food.
The last Iowa State Fair, for example, saw then-presidential candidates Bill Richardson and Mitt Romney flipping pork chops in an attempt to show they were ?men of the people.? Both have since dropped out of their respective primary races, so it appears their political cooking efforts were in vain. However, some inside sources tell me that Romney?s duck ? l?orange may land him a vice presidential nomination.
One case in which the use of food in political rhetoric and identity formation did make a difference was the great Cornpone Debate of 1931.
Famed Louisiana politician Huey Long sparked the debate when he commented that he liked to dunk his cornpone ? a griddlecake made of cornmeal batter, for all you Yankees out there ? into his potlikker, the salty residual liquid left after boiling a pot of greens.
Long?s seemingly innocuous comment sparked a debate that would involve Georgia?s largest newspaper and many prominent Southern politicians. Almost immediately after he made the comment, the Atlanta Constitution newspaper accused him of cultural treason, saying, ?Cornpone, so-called, that can be dunked is not genuine cornpone, despite the assertion of Governor Long to the contrary.?
An outraged Long wrote back to the newspaper defending his practice, and before long the debate escalated to the point that governors of several Southern states made public statements on how they ate their cornpone.
The heated rhetoric following in the weeks after Long?s first exchange with the paper shows the governors had deep convictions about how to properly eat a griddlecake. The reason for the gravity of their language was that they felt their dietary choices had profound implications for their identity as Southerners. The debate presents an interesting case study in how politicians use food to communicate who they are to their constituents.
One final way politicians use food as a rhetorical tool is in making metaphors. Richard Nixon, when defending his nomination of the ironically named Warren Burger for the Supreme Court, said Burger was an ideal nominee because he graduated from one of the country?s ?meat and potatoes law schools? rather than an elite institution. In this case, Burger didn?t even have to eat anything to forge his political identity; Nixon, like Richard Dreyfus in ?Close Encounters of the Third Kind,? used food to sculpt a part of the two men?s destinies.
Whether it is used to show personal identity or to incorporate figurative language into speeches, food can be a powerful tool in political discourse.
Sometimes, however, it is best to leave food off the rhetorical menu. Former Vice President Dan Quayle learned that lesson the hard way in 1992, when he corrected a young boy?s spelling of a word for a starchy tuber. From that day forward, Quayle?s political identity was inextricably linked to the word ?potatoe.?
Jason Engelhart is a senior majoring in economics and history. If you are a dean of one of the country?s ?meat and potatoes law schools? and would like to offer him a scholarship, please e-mail him at [email protected]