Forced, yes, but not necessarily unhappy, and certainly not deserving of the gasps and guffaws it drew. A former restaurant critic myself, I fielded a media request for my appraisal of Trump’s epicurean trespass. “Let he who is without a bag of microwave popcorn in his cupboard cast the first stone,” I said, or something along those lines.
We need a sense of proportion when it comes to the president and his administration, a system of triage, in order to choose wisely from the buffet of outrages. The red scare before us isn’t ketchup. It’s Mike Flynn, Jeff Sessions and the curious flow of courtesies between Moscow and Mar-a-Loco.
We also need to stop maligning Trump and those around him as gauche creatures —how dare the first lady wear sequins or Kellyanne Conway perch so flippantly on an Oval Office couch — because that line of attack is trivial, gross and bound to backfire. For one thing, it pegs Trump’s critics as exactly the sneering elites he says we are. For another, it suggests that we’re indiscriminate naysayers condemning all things Trump, even those that do no measurable harm.
We’ve been especially condescending on the culinary front. During Trump’s candidacy, journalist after journalist marveled at his exaltation of fast food, alternately wondering if it was a put-on to express solidarity with less affluent Americans and noting its nutritional recklessness. In the wake of a tweeted photo of Trump, a bucket of KFC and a fork, there was even scoffing at the way he ate fast food — with utensils!
Tongues wagged anew just weeks ago when it was learned that Trump had forced Chris Christie to follow his lead at a White House lunch and eat meatloaf, which the president praised as his favorite item on the menu. News coverage of this hinted that Trump wasn’t merely a bully but also a rube. What grown-up could possibly be so fond of this retro, frumpy dish?
Um, me. I serve meatloaf at dinner parties. I devoted a whole cookbook to it. And my gustatory overlap with Trump doesn’t end there. Back when I was a critic, I drove cross-country over nine days to sample the fast foods of different American regions. The road trip was entirely my idea, and with the exception of a misbegotten tater tot here and a bastard chicken finger there, I didn’t regret it.
We’re brutal on the eating habits of politicians. They mustn’t betray their upper-crust privilege, as John Kerry did when he requested Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak. But they also mustn’t embarrass us with a dearth of willpower or discernment. Bill Clinton’s Big Macs were often cast as a character flaw. George W. Bush’s nachos and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches were sometimes seen as an overly emphatic, self-conscious surrender of sophistication.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, raised eyebrows with his surfeit of discipline, manifest in his nighttime snack of precisely seven almonds, or so the legend went. His buttoned-up appetite was a metaphor for his bottled-up emotions.
We’re brutal on eating habits, period. Remember all the fuss in 2012 when a North Dakota newspaper published an earnest, laudatory appraisal of a new Olive Garden by an 85-year-old columnist? The review went viral, at first the object of bloggers’ ridicule and then the focal point of a tense, spirited conversation about what different kinds of restaurants meant to different kinds of people. All of this over faux-Tuscan décor, fettuccine Alfredo and breadsticks.
As merciless as we can be about how people feed themselves, we’re even more merciless about how they feed their kids. A mother giving her 5-year-old a sugary Sprite might as well be handing him a loaded gun. The looks she gets from the parents around her are that aghast and alarmed.
The more economically privileged the circles, the more people assert their identities through the supposed erudition, acuity and morality of their food choices. The farmer’s-market crowd looks down on the Whole Foods rabble, who tsk-tsk at the Trader Joe’s hoi polloi. The Café Grumpy evangelists laugh dismissively at the Starbucks aficionados. What a person genuinely, viscerally enjoys, regardless of its cultural bona fides, carries little weight. Food is the new fashion: our outward advertisement of who we are. Woe to the roughneck who rushes toward something shabby and comfy in the interests of time, budget or idiosyncratic taste.
It’s oppressive. I remember actually looking both ways and keeping my head down as I walked into a Domino’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan a few years back. I had a hankering for chicken wings. It was the purveyor most directly in my path. But I feared that some acquaintance would see me, interrogate me and never think the same of me again. And somehow I cared.
For the record, those wings were suspiciously flabby, excessively starchy and promiscuously sauced. They also hit the spot. And I have several bags of microwave popcorn in my cupboard, lest I run out on a night when I want a bowl in my lap for my ritual midnight viewing of a “Law & Order” rerun.
We’re a strange species and never stranger than when ingesting, though many of us cloak our predilections. A hugely successful professional I know — a public figure of sorts — secretly kept an entire roasted chicken in his car or his shoulder bag when he traveled, so that he could pick at it continuously and furtively. It soothed him. He may be toting a roasted chicken as I type, but I’d never ask, and I’m guessing he’d never tell. Poultry is personal.
A man I had just begun dating once decided to make me an omelet for breakfast, and my appreciation turned to horror as I noticed that the ingredients went beyond eggs, Cheddar and vegetables. He poured mustard into the mix. Then fish sauce.
Eight years later, we’re still together, because I understand that eating is inexplicable. I no longer let him cook, but I do let him be.
Trump warrants the same consideration. What he’s doing with his beef isn’t really so peculiar. We practically insist that ketchup accompany burgers — why not steaks? Besides, its ingredients overlap with those in more expensive bottled steak sauce: tomato, vinegar, onion, sweeteners. Ketchup is just A1 with a tart’s rouge.
And Trump is just exerting his rightful culinary autonomy. While we can’t permit him to put Russian interests on a par with American ones, we must allow him to put Russian dressing on whatever he wants.
Continue reading the main story