She should not be so shocked. Since the advent of American democracy, politicians have deployed foods in order to show how populist they are—how much they are like you and me. They attend barbecues in the South (and in Arizona) and corn festivals in the Midwest; they visit citrus growers in Florida, Mexican restaurants in California, and fishermen in Maine and Massachusetts, all while eating whatever the local specialty is in front of as many people and as much press as possible. Most of the time, the message comes across smoothly. For instance while campaigning with Obama in 2008, Joe Biden was often photographed in ice cream shops. Once the election was won, he even chose to make an announcement about federal overtime regulations at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream in Columbus, Ohio. “My name is Joe Biden and I love ice cream. You all think I’m kidding, I’m not. I eat more ice cream than three other people you’d like to be with, all at once,” he said.
Occasionally, politicians get the food wrong. The Nixon flap evokes another New York food scandal: The time when, in early 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was caught eating pizza with a knife and fork at a pizzeria in Staten Island. In August 2003, U.S. presidential hopeful John Kerry campaigned through Philadelphia and stopped at Pat’s, a beloved spot for cheesesteaks. Only, he asked for Swiss cheese on his sandwich instead of the traditional choice-of-the-people, Cheez Whiz—or, in the parlance of Philadelphians ordering properly, “whiz wit.”
Not getting the food right can have lingering consequences for some politicians. In the summer of 2007, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, on the campaign trail in Adel, Iowa, said this while commenting on falling crop prices: “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately? See what they charge for arugula? I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff.” At the time, there wasn’t a Whole Foods in the state of Iowa; as Jason Zengerle wrote in The New Republic, this event “outed [Obama] as a foodie” as well as “an out-of-touch elitist.”
Nixon’s crime, then, was not her bagel. It was failing to make the bagel to appear “New York” enough to an audience not only of New Yorkers but also of eaters in general. I admit it: When I read about Nixon’s bagel, I gagged a little. Raisins together with onions and capers? Why?
Richard Wilk, distinguished professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Bloomington who produced a groundbreaking study analyzing globalization, the political economy, and local food, explained it to me this way: “A big principal of American cookery is not mixing savory with sweet. It’s a very medieval thing to mix meat and sugar, it survives in the form of mincemeat, and a lot of people find it disgusting.”