Cheesegate

“Candidate X went to [local food speciality establishment] and was so out of touch she ordered [local food, probably derived from workman’s lunches at the turn of the century] and asked for it with [condiment or complement that sounds sensible but isn’t the typical local choice.] {Implication that the candidate is a phony, or out of touch with the common people.}”

This week we had one of those stupid stories, about Scott Walker going to a venerable Philadelphia sandwich shop and ordering a cheesesteak with the “wrong” cheese.

Yeah, whatever.

The NPR show The Takeaway–new to the Chicago market, but quickly becoming one of my favorite things on NPR–just did a piece using the Walker story to question if food stories do, or should be expected to, tell us anything about a candidate more than “he’s not from here.” Somewhat cheekily, the guest suggested that rather than worrying about appearing authentic and in touch with all local traditions and mores, Walker could have just been his own man by bringing with him some Wisconsin cheese curds, ordering the cheesesteak without cheese, and dolloping the curds on top.

Sometimes the stupid food story is incidental. A candidate is traveling, stops for lunch, and the press sees her order a salad, or a chicken sandwich without mayo or bun, or an expensive caffeinated drink. Other times, as appears was the case in Philadelphia, the campaign builds an event around going to some local eatery and ordering the local specialty. In that case, the campaign is as much to blame as is the frivolity of shallow journalists; if you have an event with no message other than “the candidate is eating a cheesesteak,” it shouldn’t surprise anyone if we get critiques of the candidate’s performance of eating a cheesesteak.

But candidates still need to eat, and they’ll still stop in the Detroit area for a coney island, or in Chicago for an Italian beef sandwich, in Buffalo for a beef on weck, in the Four Corners area for a Navaho taco, in Maine for crab rolls, or anywhere in the country, where they will order something that originated in, or is unique to, that area. How can candidates prevent the stupid “ordered her food wrong” story?

It’s easy to avoid most of the stupid food stories, and by using an approach candidates should use everywhere and always, and all matters: ask questions, and listen.

If a candidate is really committed to Swiss cheese, then she should have Swiss cheese on her sandwich. If a candidate–like a majority of adults not of northern European background–is lactose-intolerant, she shouldn’t get a cheesesteak, and nobody should make an issue about it. But, if she wants to try a local specialty, she should ask someone for suggestions on how to order it. She should go to the counter, or wait for the server, and when it’s time to order, say “I’d like an Italian beef sandwich; how do you recommend I order it?” [My answer, for what it’s worth, is “hot and wet,” meaning the entire sandwich dipped in the gravy, and topped with spicy relish.] Or say “what’s a popular way of eating it,” or “is there a traditional way, or maybe some recent popular variation?”

Whatever the food, whomever the candidate, a politician will almost never get in trouble for being seen listening to people in public. It’s a great visual. The candidate may learn something. And the citizen will appreciate being heard by a politician pledging to represent her interests and asking for her vote. Even if it was only about which cheese to put on a sandwich.

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