FDR milk

Food and the Race for the American Presidency: A Photo Essay


Here at Leftovers, we’ve been following the U.S. presidential election very keenly, and I’m sure our readers have been doing the same. But what, you might ask, does this election have to do with the history of food?

Well, for that, we have travel back through presidential history. In the beginning of the presidency, portraits looked like this:

pres portraits

Teddy Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln, George Washington

All of these portraits have formal elements, presenting the president as strong and powerful, a confident leader. He’s a constant in an unstable world.

In the mid-twentieth century, however, something shifts. Beginning with Truman and FDR, there’s an explosion of photographs of presidents in more informal settings, often eating. And not refined, fancy food. Fast food: hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos, ice cream cones, you name it.

FDR milk

FDR drinking milk, for June Dairy Month


Truman dining with the crew of the U.S.S. Augusta

NMAH Archives Center Good Humor Ice Cream Collection 0451 Box 1 Folder 7 Photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower eating a Good Humor Bar, taken by International News Photos of New York.

Eisenhower enjoying a Good Humor Bar

LBJ having some good old Texas BBQ at the LBJ Ranch

While these are not “official” presidential portraits, they certainly aren’t “paparazzi” photos. They are not covert sightings of a president in his private quarters, but are instead occasions when a president made himself publicly available for photo ops. These are tightly crafted efforts to look casual and simple, to present presidents as common people, as everyday Americans – stars, they’re just like us!

JFK aboard the “Honey Fitz,” eating ice cream

President Reagan eats a McDonald’s Big Mac

George H.W. Bush eats a tamale

George H.W. Bush eats a tamale

In the late 20th century and early 2000s, photos of presidents eating “classic” American food – pizza, ice cream, hamburgers – rose to prominence. There are countless photos of Clinton and Obama eating with so-called average Americans, and the two of them proved especially adept at the ice cream cone photo op. These are all affordable foods that complement the American dream that all of us one-dollar-pizza folks could one day be president, and that the president inhabits the same world as us. You need only recall the endless discussion of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “fancy” pizza-eating habits (God forbid, with a knife and fork!) to see how powerful this fantasy of simplicity is. Sure enough, when photos of the Obama daughters’ lavish private school meals surfaced, people went bananas.


Bill Clinton gets some ice cream on his nose

obama ice cream

President Obama downs an ice cream cone


NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio eats pizza with – gasp! – a fork

Given Trump’s statement about his love of tacos, we can also recognize the role of “ethnic” foods within this political food game. Hispanic foods have increasingly become part of the presidential mix, with tacos and burritos as photo op props. Sometimes these photo ops come in direct response to accusations of racism, or as a way for a politician to highlight his or her openness to the evolving culinary and cultural palate of the United States.

Trump taco

Trump, showing off his love of tacos

So the media is obsessed with food and with our politicians eating, but should we expect next? How will Hillary Clinton approach what has become a necessary aspect of presidential campaigning?

A few months ago, news surfaced that the candidate had broken her rule of not consuming food in public in order to eat an ice cream sundae, but this seemed to be a one-time occurrence.

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Hillary Clinton enjoys an ice cream sundae in New York

As a woman, Hillary Clinton is already under intense scrutiny, especially regarding any public eating. Though we can easily find many photos of her husband eating in public during his term, as First Lady, she learned to avoid these photo ops. Let’s face it: women clearly have less social legitimacy to eat at all, let alone eat messy, greasy food. In a world of food shaming, where female celebrities avoid eating in public, the democratic candidate might find herself in a pickle. Photos of Obama licking a dripping ice cream cone are endearing; the same photos of Clinton are perceived as unappealing and unattractive, simply because she’s a woman. For this reason, there are comparatively few photos of her eating hamburgers, hot dogs, and the like.

But eating with average Americans has become a hallmark of the presidency. What, then, will Hillary Clinton do when faced with opportunities to commune with her constituents in the coming months? Though it remains to be seen, we’re sure that she’ll make a mark on presidential food history, indeed.


'Food and the Race for the American Presidency: A Photo Essay' has 1 comment

  1. November 18, 2019 @ 6:04 am When U.S. Presidents began to be seen eating - Food History

    […] “Food and the Race for the American Presidency: A Photo Essay” on the Leftovers History website from the Columbia University Department of History (2016) […]


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