If Politicians Are What They Eat, Obama is Chili and Romney is Broccoli

You are what you eat, or so goes the modern turn on the Corleone-esque, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” first penned in 1826 by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante

If it wasn't already made obvious by oblique glances at restaurants or lunch room appraisal, our pick of foods signal more than how we fuel our bodies. What, how, and sometimes when we eat becomes accessory to our character. It's no wonder, then, that Americans have an appetite for learning what their presidential candidates are eating. Every bite is biography, every recipe a clue to campaign tact.

This sentiment is hardly new. Thomas Jefferson is notable in his early fondness for a particularly gourmet recipe of macaroni and cheese, one often served at state dinners. Bess Truman made a plain, but politically correct Ozark Pudding for her husband Harry. In more modern times, Ronald Reagan's affection for jellybeans and Bill Clinton’s is hankering for McDonald's (well, until recently) are quirks more memorable than some of their policy initiatives. Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, too, have courted evaluation by laying their menu selections on the table.

Both candidates prize recipes handed down through their family, be it Ann Romney's grandmother's Welsh skillet cakes, or President Obama's family chili recipe—each carries an air of socioeconomic correctness. That may be where the similarities end.

Governor Romney's eating habits do more to reinforce his public narrative than offer something new to the plate. For starters, the Mormon faith prohibits coffee and tea, so the Republican presidential candidate opts for a hot chocolate to get him going. Ann Romney reports that her husband's guilty pleasures include caffeine-free coke and cold cereal. All of this seems to square with the reveal that the Governor sustains himself on the campaign trail with helpings to turkey breast, rice and broccoli. When confronted with fried chicken or pizza, he has been known to skim the skin and peel off the cheese. Governor Romney's gustatory thrill-ride seems to reinforce the media tale that he's the white bread candidate. Neither does his diet same capable of frills, nor will it ever offend. If anything, the uniform un-hipness to the Romney campaign is suggestive of an appeal to the well-established trope of the likable, but awkward guy.

In uncanny opposition to the Governor's plate, the president is known for ordering burgershotdogs and chili. If guilty pleasure can persist beyond this less-than-innocent diet, campaign manager David Axelrod dished on the president's weakness for pie. But the First Lady, with her Let's Move! initiative to prevent childhood obesity, aims to quell those leery of hypocrisy with her healthy spins on traditional dishes, like a Mac and cheese recipe that brings cauliflower into the mix. On a number of occasions, the produce of her labor at the White House Garden has made it onto the menus at state dinners. President Obama, in juxtaposition to his worldly upbringing, consumes a textbook Americana diet. As this election is battled over a handful of swing-states that skirt the middle of this country where burgers, hotdogs and chili all seem to taste better, so too does it seem the president is perhaps pragmatic on a eating -- as swing voters do.

It's difficult to draw the line separating what is meaningful in the candidates' food choices from what is merely interesting. Admittedly, when the campaign conversation turns to diet, some might argue the public discourse lacks meat.  

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Rajiv Narayan

I'm currently a contributing curator at Upworthy and a grad student at the University of Oxford, where I study Medical Anthropology. In the last year I was an Associate at the healthcare information firm Close Concerns, where I covered research, drug, and policy developments in obesity and public health. Before that I was a Research Assistant at Social Policy Research Associates. And not too long before that I was finishing my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Davis, where I was very privileged to be a Regents Scholar and graduate Phi Beta Kappa with highest honors in a self-designed major. In college I was a 2010 Young People For fellow and the Senior Fellow for Health Policy at the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. At various points over the last 4 years I've worked on an urban farm in Milwaukee, interned at the California State Assembly, and taught classes on the Social Theory of Eating Disorders at UC Davis. On the academic side, I researched obesity legislation in Argentina, food stamps in California, the racial dynamics of obesity policy in Southern States, and fat acceptance activism in California.

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