The arugula meme was born, so far as I can tell, when a young and relatively unknown presidential candidate by the name of Barack Obama, attempting to sympathize with a group of Iowans about the challenges of rising food prices, opened his mouth and promptly inserted his foot:
"Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" the senator said. "I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff."
The state of Iowa, for all of its vast food production, does not have a Whole Foods, a leading natural and organic foods market. The closest? Omaha, Minneapolis or Kansas City. Mr. Obama, perhaps sensing a lack of reaction from the crowd, moved along to the next topic.
A gaffe? Surely — and the fact that Iowa actually does grow and sell a fair share of arugula doesn’t do much to alleviate that. The reaction, in any case, was every bit as merciless as the rise to fame of a previously obscure leafy green was, err, meteoric: what had previously been the province of the occasional recipe-blogger immediately became the political slur du jour, an all-purpose tool for accusing your opponents of being effete, elite, and otherwise out of touch with the concerns of those fabled ordinary Americans. And Obama, in turn, was promptly anointed as the fancy-dining liberal with the Ivy League degrees: “wine track” candidate who would surely be rejected by Hillary Clinton’s shot-downing beer drinkers, the blue state counterpart to Miss Buffalo Chip and John McCain’s – ahem – salt-of-the-earth Ferragamo loafers.
Clearly Obama didn’t deserve it, but then again neither did arugula. Unlike, say, petite vanilla scones or that old liberal staple, the cappuccino, the plant that is known by much of the English-speaking world as “rocket” hardly deserves to be pegged as the exclusive province of left-wing foodies. It is, for one thing, widely regarded as an aphrodisiac, which makes it arguably the most pro-family of the salad greens out there – and in addition to pairing nicely with some fresh fruit and nuts in a salad, its spicy zest also lends itself well to pesto. It grows like a weed, too, which means that even if there isn’t a Whole Foods around, you can show what it means to embody the virtues of hard work and self-sufficiency by scattering some seeds and growing yourself an edible yard. If a guy can’t eat this stuff without being accused of being a latte-sipping closet communist, then what does that say about the state of our public discourse?
Actually, don’t answer that question – I’ve been there before, and I’m sorry to say that the answer isn’t pretty. A few months ago, I wrote a cover essay for The American Conservative magazine, in which I argued that many aspects of what has come to be thought of as the “liberal” understanding of food and food production are things that traditional conservatives should be deeply sympathetic to: the importance of carefully prepared family-centered meals, for instance, should be recognized by those who value the integrity of the family, while thriving local economies are a necessary prerequisite to political self-governance, and culinary traditions are no less important than flag, faith, and ancestry in helping to define “who we are.” While the argument was generally well-received by people across the political spectrum, a modified version of the essay that ran in the Boston Globe was picked up by a conservative “media watchdog” group that accused me of being a closet liberal “con” on an inexplicable “rebranding” project: my “inner Berkeley liberal,” I was informed, was keeping me from eating “traditional American meals” like “pizzas and spareribs,” while the reality of my “liberal scam-speak” emerged clearly in my critical remarks about the “crass materialism of popular culture.”
Obviously there are many lessons to be drawn from this episode, but focus for a moment on what it reveals about the state of American conservatism. My critic summarized the core thesis of what he called my “gastronomic baloney” with the – clearly absurd, but then again I never said it – claim that “Food choices can make you ‘conservative’”: but what else did he think that he was assuming when he tried to impugn my conservative credentials by pointing out that steak and fried chicken were notably missing from my weekly menu? Yes, it’s true: a graduate student’s paycheck doesn’t come to much, and so we end up eating a lot of beets and wilted chard in my house. And what of it? The past seven years have seen professed “conservatives” plunge our nation into an unnecessary war, institute a domestic surveillance program and vastly expand the size of the federal government, and demand that the taxpayers foot the bill for a $700 billion handout to Wall Street: do they really need to dictate the contents of my refrigerator as well?
But it’s not just conservatives who trade on this sort of vapid identitarianism in the ways they define their political coalitions. Like the rise of the arugula meme, my critic’s strange obsession with barbecue sauce was just another instance of the countless ways in which our politicking manages to proceed by way of signaling rather than substance: hence John McCain, despite being a child of privilege married to a billionaire heiress, gets to pass himself off as a man of the people; the ethanol-subsidizing Barack Obama is embraced by the Slow Food crowd as the one who will save America from high fructose corn syrup; and National Review editor Jonah Goldberg can joke about the creeping liberal totalitarianism of Whole Foods despite the fact that the corporation’s founder is, you know, a libertarian. Going on about bean sprouts and yogurt is little different than saying “hope,” “change,” “maverick,” or – more recently – “Main Street”: in each case there is plenty of sound and fury, but what is actually signified has far more to do with membership on a team than a robust set of political commitments. The politics of meaninglessness has been with us for quite a while now – it was pretty much inevitable that our food choices would get caught up in it, too.
For those of us who want something better, then, the time to subvert the dominant paradigm is now: and as the Pilgrims and the Native Americans are said to have seen so keenly nearly four centuries ago, there’s no better way to do that than by gathering around the table. Good food can work like few other things to bring people together despite their differences: not, however, through the bland and consensus-driven mishmash of “bipartisanship,” but by way of something more like the techniques of culinary fusion, where all of us can learn from the others without having to compromise what defines us at the start. So whether we’re Slow Food conservatives, libertarian grass farmers, or gastronomically traditionalist organic-loving liberal foodies, let’s all stand firm against the attempt to treat our diets as just another pawn in the politicians’ scheme. Hotdogs, corn on the cob, and warm apple pie are entirely deserving of their all-American reputation – but what good is our freedom if they won’t let us eat arugula?
Story by John Schwenkler. John Schwenkler is a freelance writer and a graduate student in philosophy at UC Berkeley. He blogs about food, politics, Notre Dame football, and the horrifying trainwreck that is American movement conservatism at Upturned Earth. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008. The story was moved to MNN.com in March 2009.