This Year in Political Food Fights

Mitt Romney claimed grits, David Cameron staked out meat pies, and now Rick Santorum's trying to turn the jelly belly red.

FAIRFIELD, CA - JUNE 10: People look at portraits that were made out of jelly beans of the late President Ronald Reagan at the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, California on June 10, 2004. President Reagan was known for his fondness for jelly beans during his political career and claims the candy helped him quite smoking when he was governor of California. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney decided to deliver a major address on U.S. foreign policy last fall, he chose a logical location: The Citadel in South Carolina. This week, Rick Santorum chose to hold forth on international affairs from a decidedly less conventional setting: the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, California.

Why, you ask, has Santorum decided to discuss weighty geopolitical issues from the place that brought you Tutti-Fruitti, Sizzling Cinnamon, and this guy? Is the Republican candidate unveiling some kind of Jelly Belly Doctrine — a belabored metaphor about a diverse international system starring Iran as Sour Cherry and Cuba as Island Punch?

Not exactly. For starters, Santorum is no stranger to candy. In the Senate, he was in charge of stocking the “candy desk” for a decade. And he represented a state — Pennsylvania — that’s home to the makers of Hershey bars and Mike and Ikes.

The Los Angeles Times also notes that Santorum may be trying to associate himself with Ronald Reagan, who loved jelly beans so much that a blueberry flavor was specially created so that the president could serve three tons of red, white, and blue beans at his inauguration in 1981 (yes, the portrait of Reagan above is made out of jelly beans). Two years later, Reagan surprised astronauts on the Challenger shuttle with the first jelly beans to travel in outer space.

On Thursday night in Fairfield, Santorum compared himself to the Gipper by declaring that Ronald Reagan didn’t “whisper to Gorbachev, ‘Give me some flexibility'” (unlike Obama) or “say one thing in front of one group and something else in front of another” (unlike Romney).

The Jelly Belly Candy Co. is active in Republican politics as well. Federal Election Commission reports show that Chairman Herman Rowland donated $2,500 to both Romney and former presidential candidate Rick Perry, and $1,000 to Newt Gingrich (he claims he also cut a check for Santorum on Thursday). The company said it would discuss “sugar reform” with the Republican candidate during his visit.

However unusual, Santorum’s Jelly Belly gambit highlights a larger truth on vivid display over the past year: Food isn’t just food. It’s also highly political — from pasties in Britain to mooncakes in China.

David Paul Morris/Getty Images


Food: Grits, kosher food

Fight: Santorum isn’t the first Republican presidential candidate to politicize food. Earlier this month, critics accused Romney of shamelessly pandering to southerners when he told voters in Mississippi that he liked grits and told voters in Alabama that he was beginning to like catfish (after previously telling a crowd in South Carolina that he was not much of “a catfish man”). “Everything Mitt Romney learned about the South, he learned from a Jeff Foxworthy routine,” Daily Show host Jon Stewart lamented. (Foxworthy has endorsed Romney.)

Then there was the Gingrich campaign’s robocall in Florida claiming that, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney had denied kosher food to Holocaust survivors in nursing homes. PolitiFact ruled that the allegation, which was based on Romney’s veto of a bill to provide additional funding for nursing homes, was “mostly false.”

Here’s Romney proclaiming his newfound love of grits:

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


Food: Pasties

Fight: The British press is currently up in arms about meat-filled pasties — specifically Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s effort to slap a value-added tax on the previously tax-free food, plus other hot snacks such as sausage rolls (not to mention Osborne’s remark that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten a pasty). Prime Minister David Cameron made matters worse by claiming that he’d recently munched on a pasty at Leeds station in northern England, only for reporters to discover that the pasty stand at Leeds station closed down years ago.

Critics claim these actions demonstrate that the Conservative Party is teeming with wealthy politicians who are hopelessly out of touch with ordinary citizens, who are struggling with austerity measures and, as the logic goes, disproportionately eating pasties (sample headline: “Why Stop at Pasties, George Osborne? Class-Based Taxation Is the Future“). As bakers threaten a protest march, politicians are vying to see who can look best devouring pasties and sausage rolls on camera. The Telegraph has a great video roundup of the theatrics:

Matt Cardy/Getty Images


Food: Cottage cheese

Fight: Protests erupted in Israel last summer over rising food prices, in what was quickly dubbed the “cottage cheese rebellion” after a Facebook page calling for a boycott of the expensive Israeli staple took off and put a significant dent in cottage cheese sales. As the Wall Street Journal noted at the time, the campaign was pretty successful:

At first, Israel’s two huge food conglomerates, Tnuva (headed by Zahavit Cohen) and Strauss (chaired by Ofra Strauss), blamed cottage cheese’s high price on rising production costs beyond their control. But relentless reporting — especially by the Marker, a pro-market business publication — revealed that the consumer was being fleeced at each stage of production, from the high-prices charged by milk-producing cooperatives and the conglomerates’ own dairies, to retail chains that divvy up market share to curb competition and inflate prices. The boycott forced the cartel to cut prices.

Now there’s a different kind of cottage cheese protest brewing. Tnuva’s employees and management are engaged in a labor dispute, which has produced a cottage cheese shortage.

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images


Food: Bread

Fight: Many people have cited the rising price of food — and bread in particular — as one of the underlying causes of the Arab Spring uprisings. Rami Zurayk, an agronomy professor at the American University of Beirut, has made this very pointnoting that the Tunisian uprising began in the country’s rural, farming region and the Syrian uprising began in the agricultural center of Deraa. Foreign Policy published a slideshow last April of Arab protesters brandishing various forms of bread — including some that even had slogans baked into the dough (the most iconic photo is above).

A year later, sustenance issues — whether the possible removal of food subsidies in Egypt or a looming water crisis in Yemen — are now threatening the region’s new class of leaders. In March, the Economist pointed out that countries in the Middle East and North Africa depend more on imported food than anywhere else, and are clinging to costly and ineffective food subsidies in the wake of the unrest. “The Arab spring is making food problems worse,” the magazine argued.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters


Food: Tortillas

Fight: Enrique Peña Nieto, the frontrunner in Mexico’s presidential race, did enough damage in December when he admitted that he didn’t know the exact price of tortillas, the quintessential household staple in Mexico. But he then dug himself a deeper hole by explaining why: “I am not the lady of the house,” he pointed out. Social networks lit up with criticisms of the candidate’s comments (plus the obligatory hashtag: #nosoylaseñoradelacasa) and Josefina Vázquez Mota, Peña Nieto’s female challenger, pounced, noting that she manages to be both a prominent government official and a “housewife” who checks the refrigerator every night.

Peña Nieto later claimed that he was merely explaining how things work in his family, not disparaging women. But the clarification couldn’t halt a wave of satire, including this depiction of the dashing former governor as Rosy the Riveter:

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images


Food: Halal meat

Fight: In February and early March, halal meat improbably became a top issue in the French presidential election when a television documentary reported that most slaughterhouses around Paris were producing halal meat, prompting far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen to raise hackles about non-Muslims in the capital unwittingly eating halal. After initially dismissing the allegations, President Nicolas Sarkozy called for labels on meat explaining how the animals were slaughtered and reiterated his opposition to serving halal meat in school cafeterias. Sarkozy even deemed the halal hullabaloo the “issue that most preoccupies the French” despite, as the Guardian put it, “surveys showing that voters were less concerned about halal meat than they were about the weather and football.”

Things really took a turn for the worse when Prime Minister Francois Fillon alienated the country’s Muslim and Jewish communities by suggesting that the religious slaughter of animals was outdated. In the aftermath of the deadly shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, it’s unclear whether the issue will continue to play a prominent role in the campaign.

Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images 


Food: Cooking oil

Fight: Last year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez did an about-face and began partnering with foreign companies to alleviate domestic shortages of staples such as milk and corn flour, in what was perceived as an effort to buoy his 2012 reelection bid. And he’s continuing to wield food as a political weapon as he struggles to overcome cancer and stay ahead of an emboldened opposition. (The latest tool in his arsenal? Cuban ice cream.) In an article for Foreign Policy in February, Peter Wilson noted that, ahead of the opposition’s primary, the government sponsored markets across the country that offered products such as cooking oil, powdered milk, and chicken at subsidized prices.

But basic items like cooking oil remain scarce. When Chávez’s 14-year-old daughter, Rosinés, posted a picture of herself online clutching a fistful of U.S. bills, irate Venezuelans populated a Tumblr with satirical photos such as the one above.



Food: Mooncakes

Fight: In the lead-up to China’s Mid-Autumn Festival this past fall, mooncakes — the stuffed pastry traditionally eaten during the holiday — caused all sorts of political headaches. The government’s decision to make employees who receive mooncakes from their companies, as is customary during the festival, pay personal income tax on the goodies (which could actually bump them into a higher tax bracket) prompted a furious debate among more than 50,000 users of China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo service over the course of two days, according to the Global Times.

Chinese news outlets also reported that mooncake prices were rising steeply, that Chinese regulators had discovered mooncakes with high bacterial content, and that 34 countries had banned mooncakes from entering their borders.

“It is supposed to be a pleasant time to eat the mooncake under the full moon,” Xinhua quoted a Weibo user named “fenchun” as complaining.

Ah, fenchun, if only food were that simple!

Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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