What does Hillary Clinton eat?

What to eat. What not to eat.
Feb. 20 2008 11:45 AM

How Hungry Is Hillary Clinton?

An analysis of the candidate's taste buds.

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At his tryout luncheon for the Clintons, Scheib prepared pecan-crusted lamb with morel sauce and discovered that lamb is Hillary's favorite meat. This in itself indicates a certain palate sophistication, because lamb has a more complex, gamey flavor than easier-to-like beef, veal, or pork. The sweet potatoes Scheib served with it were spiked with red curry paste. The Clintons loved them, and this prompted Scheib to keep assorted hot sauces on hand at all times. Could the first couple's affection for spice also offer a personality clue? According to research performed years ago by Dr. Paul Rozin and Deborah Schiller at the University of Pennsylvania, people who love hot chilies are considered limited risk takers; they are the kind of people who are willing to gamble or ride roller coasters. (One has to wonder what would constitute a limited risk in current geopolitical terms.)

Although many family meals in the Clinton White House were based on fish and vegetables, with a minimum of starches (it was the Atkins and Dean Ornish era, after all), things were different if Bill or Hillary were eating alone. Hillary went for the exotic flavors of the Middle East—baba ghanouj, hummus, and tahini. And if President Clinton was on his own for dinner, he invariably canceled the healthful meal that had been ordered for him and asked Scheib to dig into his secret stash of prime meat and grill a 24-ounce porterhouse steak with béarnaise sauce and fried onion rings, evidence that marital cheating can take many forms.

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Being a woman, Hillary is expected to cook, something that is rarely demanded of a male political candidate. Once when she was asked if she was good at it, she answered candidly, "I'm a lousy cook, but I make pretty good soft scrambled eggs." Soft scrambled eggs—another indication of a stylish palate as are omelets and tossed salads, specialties that she copped to on another occasion.

Of all the eating Hillary Clinton has done, none could be more trying than that required along the campaign trail. Accepting, and then relishing, the specialties of a particular constituency—the more ethnic or regional the better—has become part of the American political ritual. "Love me, love my food," seems to be the challenge, while to refuse or, perhaps even worse, to start eating something and then not finish it, is seen as a flat-out rejection. In June 2007, Eugene Fraise, the Democratic senator from Iowa, held a barbecue honoring Hillary at his farm. "We're not going to vote for them if they don't sit down at our table and have coffee," he said.

And not only coffee. Think hero sandwiches, pizza, calzone, ribs, fried chicken, corn on the cob, nachos, fajita-filled tortillas, pancakes, waffles, kielbasa, pirogi, dim sum, knishes, lox and bagels, and more.

Candidates on the campaign trail also feel pressure to eat competitively, as Hillary discovered in 2000, when she ran for a New York Senate seat against Long Island Republican Rick Lazio. A week after Lazio admitted to being less than enthralled with the sausage, peppers, and onion sandwich that he was served at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, the Clintons arrived, and they both sat down to a very public lunch of that same local specialty. "It's great," Hillary announced through a mouthful of the greasy, dripping creation. She even wore a bib.

As Hillary's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination progresses, so must her waistline, a situation guaranteed to add stress. Judging by various accounts, much of her public snacking in Iowa consisted of sweet and creamy desserts, perhaps another weakness (Walter Scheib reported that while in the White House, Hillary, like Chelsea, loved Dove bars). Following news reports, I traced the Clintons' visit to Whitey's Ice Cream shop in Davenport, Iowa, where, via telephone, Jan, the store manager, said that she had witnessed Hillary order a Drumstick—a chocolate-and-chopped-nut-coated vanilla ice cream on a stick—while Bill had peach yogurt in a waffle cone. Asked if they each finished the whole thing, Jan replied, "They sure did!" That was only the first of three caloric pit stops within 30 hours. The couple went on to a Dairy Queen in Nashua, where Bill sipped a strawberry malt while Hillary chose the raspberry, and then they dropped into another D.Q. near Grinnell, where Bill had a grilled chicken sandwich and for good behavior was rewarded with a taste of Hillary's Snickers Blizzard.

For a final bit of insight into food and its meanings, consider the video that the Clinton campaign put out parodying the final episode of The Sopranos, in which Tony and Carmela and A.J. eat onion rings together at a diner. In the Clinton version, Hillary orders carrot sticks instead of onion rings, and when Bill protests, she tells him, "I'm looking out for ya.' " Ann Althouse, a law professor who writes a popular blog from Madison, Wis., conjectured on the deeper meaning of the carrot sticks: "I doubt if any blogger will disagree with my assertion that, coming from Bill Clinton, the 'O' of an onion ring is a vagina symbol. Hillary says no to that, driving the symbolism home. … [And] what does she have for him? Carrot sticks! … Here, Bill, in retaliation for all of your excessive 'O' consumption, you may have a large bowl of phallic symbols."

In the end, how can anyone not admire a woman who, like so many of us, is torn between renunciation and appetite, with a weakness for the hot and spicy and the cool and sweet, and who surely represents the people's palate?

Significant? You be the judge.

Mimi Sheraton, a former New York Times food critic, is the author ofEating My Words: An Appetite for Life, among other books.