Photo of President Obama speaking to Modi.
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President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India during their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, September 30, 2014. Photograph by Pete Souza/Creative Commons 3.0
Photo of President Obama speaking to Modi.

Hey, Presidential Hopefuls! Who’s Your Official Food Adviser?

My prediction for the 2016 election doesn’t involve who our 45th president will be. It’s about a new strategist s/he should employ on the campaign trail: Food Advisor.

As French politician and gastronome Brillat-Savarin wrote two centuries ago, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” The American electorate extends the notion of politicians revealing their character through food to all kinds of virtues and vices: trustworthiness, authenticity, elitism. Appetites reveal all kinds of otherwise hidden desires. Food is a moral issue for Americans, from the mache-eating left to the leave-my-Twinkies-alone right.

Food morality extends beyond borders. At the end of September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited President Barack Obama in the middle of a 9-day fast honoring the annual Hindu celebration Navratri. At an intimate dinner for 20 hosted by Obama, including crispy halibut and mango crème brulee, the fasting Modi ingested only water. The Washington Post reported that Modi’s will power and toughness, which he boasted about on the campaign trail recently in May when Indian elections were held, was revered back in India with headlines like “Modi…baffles Americans with vigor.” Food—and the abstinence from it—matters.

So as November 4, 2014 nears and some of us eye November 8, 2016, and candidates insist that they care about good food policy (while their poor staffers subsist on pizza and black coffee in the wings), chew on some of my favorite bipartisan moments in 21st century election food history.

1. Mitt Romney carves a suckling pig. God made campaign advance teams to prevent photos like this. Then-presidential-hopeful Romney in 2012 dropped in on an event in electorally crucial Florida, and its influential Cuban population treated him to one of its finest delicacies—whole suckling pig. It’s a baby pig between 2- and 6-weeks-old, usually less than 10 pounds, called “suckling” because it still feeds on its mother’s milk so its meat is sweet and tender. Romney was already notorious for traveling with his dog Seamus strapped to the top of the car in an open crate on the highway, so the photo of him hovered over the tiny roasted baby pig with a knife didn’t improve his animal-loving reputation.

2. John Kerry eats a Philly cheesesteak with Swiss. Back in 2003, then-Sen. John Kerry fought his upper-crust Boston image during his presidential campaign (loving ketchup doesn’t count when you’re married to the Heinz heiress). What better way than by eating a cheesesteak with locals in Philly? But Kerry could have used a food guru to advise him that authentic Philly chessesteaks have neon-orange Cheez Whiz as its, um, dairy. Kerry requested his with Swiss cheese and then daintily chewed around the edges. National public outcry ensued, the reverse snobbery equivalent of not knowing which fork to use—if Kerry couldn’t eat a cheesesteak correctly, how could he truly understand the general population?

3. Rudy Giuliani, 1973 called, it wants its milk prices back. In 2007 an audience question at a routine campaign stop in Montgomery, Alabama brought Giuliani’s bid to be the Republican presidential nominee to a halt. How much was a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread? Giuliani answered, $1.50 for milk, $1.25 or $1.30 for bread. Of course, the question is loaded: answer too low (as Giuliani did), and you’re out of touch. Answer too high, and you’re out of touch plus you’re probably one of those organic, artisanal buying kooks. Regardless, no politician will go into a debate ever again without the answer memorized. And don’t forget the dozen eggs question.

4. Obama laments the price of arugula at Whole Foods. The next time you feel guilty about your “first world problems” while Ebola rips through Africa, think about then-Sen. Obama convening an agriculture issues forum in Iowa in 2007. “Anyone gone into Whole Foods lately and seen what they charge for arugula?” he asked the farmers, residents of a state that at the time had no Whole Foods. I know, Obama has done a lot in the ensuing 7 years and I should let this go—but the media and public’s reaction to his elitist and out-of touch references to Whole Foods and arugula shows the power of food in elections to define the person.

In the four examples above, it’s not even a dish but one single ingredient—arugula, Swiss cheese, suckling pig, milk—that defined a candidate. America is comprised of a patchwork of nuanced food realities; this should be celebrated. But our lack of food cohesion also showcases the challenge of being a modern American elected official to a patchwork of people. Food is an important indicator of whether an unknown person is one of our tribe.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.