Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
The unspoken rules of local food are a recurring nightmare for politicians.
We all know what New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon did at Zabar’s on Sunday. It’s useless to relitigate her bagel order here—it was a mind-boggling meld of sweet and savory that shook many to their cores. All I will say, as a New Yorker myself, is that New York takes immense pride in the quality of its ovular carb patties. And when Nixon chose to disrespect the medium by mixing cinnamon raisin, lox, tomatoes, and capers (why capers? ever!?), it was taken as disrespect to the whole city.
Nixon is far from the first politician to fall into the epicurean trap. In photo-ops across the country, candidates sit down with voters over a meal, hoping to look and feel relatable. They go for some stereotypical local fare; something safe and familiar that screams “I’m just like you!” But these foods are steeped in tradition and unwritten rules. One misstep and you’ve let down your whole hometown, or revealed your carpetbaggery.
Bill de Blasio eating pizza with a knife and fork? A New York “disaster.” Gerald Ford attempting to eat a tamale, shuck and all, at the Alamo? No Texan would dare. Mitt Romney asking for a “sub” in hoagie country? To Philly residents, unforgivable.
Local food matters to locals: how it’s eaten, with which fixins, and at what temperature. The protocols are complicated, and they’re intrinsic to place. John Kerry had every right to want Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak! But he should’ve known better than to ask for it. If your job is to relate to people, then knowing—and caring to learn—how to eat their food is a good place to start.
This desire for radical relatability emerged in the wake of two key gaffes in presidential politics, says veteran political media consultant and former MSNBC political director Tammy Haddad. First, in 1988, there was Mike Dukakis in a tank, basically just looking dumb wearing a helmet. Then, during George H. W. Bush’s run for reelection in 1992, there was the supermarket affair. After a trip to a trade association’s recreation of a grocery store—not even a real one!—Bush encountered the electronic scanner at the end of a check-out line, picked it up, and asked, incredulously, “This is for checking out?”
He later said he was, quote, “amazed by some of the technology” he saw in the exhibit. “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed,” read a New York Times headline from the moment. His campaign wasn’t exactly doomed by the incident, but it did have a ripple effect. (Though Donald Trump clearly didn’t learn from it: This year he claimed people need ID to buy groceries, leading people to wonder if he’s ever actually bought a grocery.)
“It really sent shockwaves through all candidates and all future candidates,” Haddad said of Bush’s blunder. “It was a narrative he could never get out of: Bush was not relatable to regular people.” And what’s an easy way to be relatable? Food.
“The key point is saying, ’I’m just like you, I’m sitting at the table with you, and we’re sharing a meal,’” she said. “What’s more familial than sharing a meal and sharing the food we love together?”
Eating food incorrectly can also show other shortcomings. When 2016 presidential candidate Hilary Clinton tried boba and called it “chewy tea,” that signaled cultural ignorance. When England’s then-Labour Party leader Ed Milliband sloppily scarfed a bacon sandwich—“that staple for any politician wanting to look like he fits in,” according to the U.K.’s Independent—that signaled gross incompetence. When then-president Barack Obama leaned over Chipotle’s sneeze guard to order, that signaled disrespect for basic hygiene.
Nixon’s story, in the end, could have been interpreted differently. She could have been a New Yorker eating a New York bagel just the way she liked it, in an unapologetically New York way—convention and taste buds be damned. She tried to own it, even fundraising off the viral moment:
Yes, I like to eat a Cinnamon Raisin Bagel with... lox, capers, red onions, cream cheese, and tomatoes.— Cynthia Nixon (@CynthiaNixon) September 11, 2018
Give a few bucks to help support our campaign in the last days before the primary and enter for a chance to have YOUR favorite bagel with me: https://t.co/Q9Whsj4T6j. pic.twitter.com/pkfjRLNZuT
But when Haddad paused our conversation to watch the infamous video of Nixon in Zabar’s, loudly proclaiming the order that could spell her doom come Thursday’s primary, she literally gasped.
“Oh my god,” she said. (It was her first viewing.) “You have to be careful that your voters aren’t going to gag on your food choices. They’re not going to vote for you if what you order makes them gag.”