Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Playing with food: how meals turn political

Food is more than just a means of sustenance; it can take on significant political and social meaning.

Earlier this year, the Independent Group posted a photo of the party gathered around a Nando’s table, seated at a seemingly casual and friendly dinner. The photo marks a series of attempts to increase publicity in the early days of the party’s existence. The PR idea behind the photo is cringingly obvious: it is a statement that these politicians are just normal, humble people who can indulge in a cheeky Nandos, totally relatable and down-to-earth with the general public. 

The execution falls rather flat. The staged nature of the whole thing makes the picture vulnerable to mockery, and exposes the in-depth planning that spurred the idea of a ‘spontaneous’ Nandos. It is a thinly-veiled performative gesture, delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Also, Anna Soubry seems to have ordered a salad, which naturally demanded an onslaught of responses on Twitter. 

Food has long been more than a means of sustenance; it takes on a political agenda and becomes a means of performing social identities. Traceable throughout history, feasts and banquets are continually used to exhibit power. King James I was known for his ante-suppers, in which extravagant foods were simply displayed – and not even eaten – before the actual feast. 

In our time, those in power actively try to shed the elitism that their political status carries. There is an increasing emphasis on being in touch with the wider public, and appearing ‘down to earth’. When talking about food before becoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair unashamedly revealed that his favourite meal was fettuccine with olive-oil, sun-dried tomatoes and capers. Unconvincingly, this apparently changed to fish and chips after Blair entered number ten. 

Food has proven capable of derailing a politician’s career. We all remember Ed Miliband and his bacon sandwich. Five years later, a Google search still returns ‘Ed Miliband bacon sandwich’ as a top suggestion upon typing the politician’s name. The then-Labour leader was mocked remorselessly online, and the incidence even became worthy of its own Wikipedia page. Yet since Miliband shed his party leader title, he has shown a more joking and self-deprecating side that has actually turned the bacon sandwich incident into something almost endearing. 

This January, ITV News tweeted, ‘cut your meat intake to half a rasher to save the planet?’ Miliband jokingly responded with a simple ‘yes,’ which soon went viral. He spawned a series of tweets in support for his light-hearted self-deprecation. 

Miliband’s viral bacon sandwich encounter no doubt secured ideas that food can be used to promote a political agenda. David Cameron has attempted to capitalise on this, albeit not so successfully. In 2012, the then-Prime Minister was facing an onslaught of protests at the new ‘pasty tax.’ The government had proposed a new twenty-percent tax on fresh baked foods that were served warm. The chief executive of Greggs accused Cameron and his ministers of being ‘out of touch’ with the population. 

Cameron rather lamely appealed, “I’m a pasty eater myself. I go to Cornwall on holiday. I love a hot pasty.” Articles soon emerged pointing to the inconsistencies of Cameron’s claims: the Prime Minister had given an anecdote about last having a pasty in the West Cornwall Pasty Company outlet in Leeds station, but journalists were quick to point that this branch had closed in 2007, exposing obvious gaps in Cameron’s story. 

Across the pond, democrat candidates were seen vying for support at the Iowa State Fair last month while performing their enjoyment of the food on offer. Bernie Sanders nodded with enthusiasm and munched into his corndog, while Kamala Harris rather eloquently conveyed the delights of her meal: “I really…like, it’s so good.” This was all a well-planned manoeuvre by the candidates: since 1967, Iowa has had huge sway in the presidential nominating process, and thus also in determining the future President. The food fair was the opportunity for the twenty plus democratic candidates to compete for the nomination and flex their personal qualities – a hugely important opportunity because Iowa is the first state to vote on the nomination. 

Food brings with it a mixed effect in politics: while used as a tool to convey politicians as fun, relatable individuals, it also offers a sort of perverse pleasure in watching political figures debase themselves in the act of bodily consumption. In an incident paralleling the Miliband sandwich disaster, Dianne Abbot was spotted drinking a M&S mojito on the London Overground. Abbot had to issue a public apology, given the 2008 law which prohibited drinking on public transport. The photo went viral, but responses were mixed. Abbot was defended as much as she was mocked, with many joking that her situation was highly relatable and even suggesting she hide her alcohol in a water bottle next time. 

Meanwhile, when David Cameron insistently used a knife and fork to eat a hotdog, he was mocked remorselessly for the incongruous choice of eating utensils. Facing the re-election race in 2015, Cameron bravely had a meal at a voter’s garden. The internet was quick to notice his knife and fork. Twitter erupted with posts centring around the topic, ‘Britain’s prime minister does not know how to eat a hot dog.’ Journalists hypothesised whether this was Cameron’s attempt to avoid a Miliband situation, since the bacon sandwich mess had only occurred a year prior. 

The incident fuelled a belief that Cameron was out of touch with the British public. The knife and fork appeared affirmative of Cameron’s snobbishness, a product of his upper-class upbringing. He was quickly branded as ‘posh,’ and his Eton education and ancestry – being a descendent of King William IV – offered few defences from such labels. 

Politicians have always played with their food. A messy bacon sandwich may appear like a harmless, endearing incident, but the way a politician eats has become one of the windows into their personality and lifestyle choices – an exclusive peek into the person they are outside of politics. It lets the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ ring with a deeper truth, turning food as a means of constructing persona and identity. 

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles