Bill de Blasio’s and the Fraught Politics of Food

Stacy A. Cordery

If New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hadn’t already dropped out of the 2020 presidential race, #bagelgate might have been the nail in the coffin.

His Jan. 15 tweet praising a toasted bagel on National Bagel Day instantly set off hardline bagel devotees-cum-voters. De Blasio quickly amended his tweet to delete the word “toasted.” But the damage was already done. Purists scorned the very idea of toasting a bagel, calling into question his bona fides as a New Yorker.

The outrage over bagel protocol may seem silly. But few acts are as personal as eating, and food is closely intertwined with place and culture.

For a politician, food might seem like a low-hanging fruit. Is there an easier way to appeal to the masses? Everyone, after all, eats.

But when politicians wade into local food customs, they do so at their own risk. My research on presidents and first ladies suggests that uninformed assumptions about food often get candidates and elected officials in trouble.

Bill de Blasio isn’t the first politician to run afoul of food norms and face the wrath of voters. And he certainly won’t be the last.

Culinary campaign calamities

Most political wannabes try hard to bridge the gap between their wealthy backgrounds and the rest of us. It rarely works.

During the 1976 presidential campaign, incumbent president Gerald Ford, before the eyes of bewildered Texans, peeled back the aluminum foil – but not the corn husk – and took a giant bite out of a tamale. Ford never lived it down.

According to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, “The Great Tamale Incident” sealed Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in the Lone Star State.

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