A Brief History of Presidential Food Controversies

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Photo: Mike Stewart/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Yesterday, following a radical recipe suggestion from the New York Times, there seemed to be unanimous bipartisan agreement among politicians (and the public) that peas have no business being included in guacamole. Everyone from the Texas Republican Party to Jeb Bush to the president himself weighed in against the peas. This type of political unity over food is rare, however, as can be seen below throughout the long history of politicians interacting with food and drinks.

The First Presidential Candidate Marketed As a Boozer
In 1840, a newspaper supporting the unpopular incumbent president Martin Van Buren tried to characterize his election opponent, William Henry Harrison, as an old, hard-drinking hillbilly. It backfired — Harrison’s campaigners turned the characterization around to their advantage, dubbing Harrison the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate in order to make him seem like a true man of the people. Harrison eventually won and became the country’s ninth president, then died after 32 days in office.

President Taft’s Taste for Possum
In early 1909, supporters of president-elect William Taft were anxious to capitalize on the popularity and profitability of the (Theodore Roosevelt–inspired) teddy-bear craze by introducing their own stuffed animal, this time associated with Taft. Their animal of choice was the opossum, and at a banquet in Atlanta, they not only presented Taft with a possum toy, they also served an 18-pound white possum for dinner, which Taft reportedly enjoyed eating very much. The eventual “Billy Possum” toy did not catch on, but some jokers did try to mail live possums to the president.

Sargent Shriver’s Courvoisier
According to biographer Scott Stossel, in 1972, the Democratic Party’s candidate for vice-president was mixing it up with working-class voters at a local bar in Youngstown, Ohio, when he tried to mimic the patrons who were yelling out the name of the next (American) beer they wanted. In contrast, Shriver shouted, “Make mine a Courvoisier!” Though the outburst was reportedly intended as a self-mocking joke, it didn’t land well politically for Shriver and eventually even appeared in his obituaries.  

Gerald Ford’s Tamale
While running for reelection in 1976, President Ford visited the Alamo in Texas and infamously picked up a tamale and took a bite without first removing its corn-husk wrapper. It became known locally as “the Great Tamale Incident.”

Reagan’s Healthy Ketchup
In the early ‘80s, the Reagan Administration tried to cut education costs by relaxing USDA Food and Nutrition Service regulations, a proposal that included the suggestion that a condiment such as pickle relish could count as a vegetable toward meeting school-lunch nutrition guidelines. Though the recommendations made by the administration never specifically referred to ketchup, critics came to lambaste the proposal for suggesting ketchup could be considered a vegetable in order to cut school-lunch budgets. 

Michael Dukakis’s Not-So-Cash Crop
While running for president in 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis probably thought he was being helpful when he suggested to Iowa corn and soybean farmers that they diversify their crops by growing Belgian endive, but Republicans used the comment to paint the candidate as out of touch with American voters (though the Belgian endive industry was admittedly thrilled for the exposure).

George H.W. Bush, “Skin Man of the Year”
After the elder Bush admitted his taste for pork rinds in a 1988 Time profile, sales of the junk food apparently increased by 11 percent, leading pork-rind-makers to dub the president their “Skin Man of the Year.”

George H.W. Bush vs. Broccoli
In 1990, President Bush decided to use the full force of his bully pulpit against his least favorite vegetable, announcing:

I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!

George H.W. Bush, Infrequent Grocery Scanner
During his 1992 reelection bid, Bush made a visit to the National Grocer’s Association convention where he tested out a grocery scanner and was subsequently ridiculed by Democrats and others for seeming a little too impressed by the more than decade-old technology, though in fairness, that interpretation was questioned by other reporters who witnessed the event. 

George H.W. Bush vs. Japan
At a 1992 state dinner in Japan, President Bush famously fell ill, throwing up and nearly fainting out of his chair as Secret Service officers jumped to his aid. Later in Japan, the term Bushu-suru (“to do the Bush thing”) was ultimately coined to jokingly commemorate the event. Below is video of the dinner, followed by Saturday Night Live’s infamous reenactment of the episode:

Dan Quayle’s “Potatoe”
While helping out with a spelling bee at a New Jersey grade school in 1992, Vice President Quayle incorrectly told a sixth grader that “potato” was spelled “potatoe,” and it became probably the most famous of the oft-mocked Quayle’s many gaffes:  

Bill Clinton’s Love Affair With McDonald’s
Until he starting dabbling with veganism in 2011, Bill Clinton was notoriously fond of the fast-food chain. This was especially true in the early ‘90s, when he was frequently found visiting McDonald’s, including on jogs. His love of the Big Mac and other fatty food provided a lot of fodder for commentators and comedians, particularly this classic SNL sketch:

Gary Bauer vs. the Flapjack:
In 2000, GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer lost his fight with a flipped pancake at a New Hampshire campaign appearance:

Also, according to USA Today

As [Bauer] fell backwards toward a hard concrete floor, he realized [fellow candidate George W.] Bush was standing behind the curtain. He recalls the future president of the United States yelling: “Here comes Bauer.”

George W. Bush vs. the Pretzel
The president momentarily lost consciousness after choking on a pretzel while watching a football game on TV in 2002. He tried to laugh it off, but he actually hit the floor hard enough to cut and bruise his face:

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Photo: Mark Wilson

John Kerry’s Cheese Choice
In Philadelphia in 2003, presidential candidate John Kerry committed a serious city sin by ordering a Philly Cheesesteak with Swiss cheese instead of Cheez Whiz.

Barack Obama’s Arugula 
As part of his Democratic primary campaign in 2007, then Senator Barack Obama tried to demonstrate his agricultural knowledge to an Iowa crowd by remarking, “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula? I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff.” Unfortunately for the Chicago native, there wasn’t a single Whole Foods Market in all of Iowa, and between that and the relative obscurity of arugula on American dinner tables, many on the right used the comment to peg Obama as an “elitist.”

Mike Huckabee’s Squirrel-Eating Days
In 2008, the former governor admitted that when he was in college, he once fried a squirrel using a popcorn-maker:

Sarah Palin and the Slaughtered Turkeys
In late November of 2008, the Alaska governor visited a turkey slaughterhouse in her state for an annual Thanksgiving turkey-pardon photo op, then gave an interview outside the facility. During that interview, a clearly surprised worker went ahead with killing some non-pardoned birds in the background, while Palin carried on unaware:

Mitt Romney’s Sandwich-Speak
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney visited a Pennsylvania Wawa convenience store and briefly made the mistake of ordering a “sub,” when in Pennsylvania that style of sandwich is correctly referred to as a “hoagie.”

Marco Rubio’s Water Break
During his official Republican response to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, the Florida senator paused mid-speech to rehydrate, and afterwards the awkward sip got exponentially more coverage than the substance of his actual remarks.

Barack Obama’s Sneeze-Guard Trespass
During a 2014 visit to a Chipotle, President Obama violated the glass sneeze barrier by leaning over to point out a condiment he wanted, and his invasion set Twitter ablaze with condemnation.

Hillary Clinton Goes to Chipotle
Earlier this year, Clinton made an incognito visit to an Ohio Chipotle restaurant, and after the media learned of this, the hot takes and analysis pieces got a little out of control trying to discern the political and cultural meaning of the non-event. In addition, Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush subsequently tried to one-up Clinton by remarking that he cooks his own Mexican food, and it’s “pretty good.”