Not Many of the Democratic Candidates Know What Comfort Food Is

updated Jun 21, 2019
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Credit: Lauren Volo

This week, The New York Times asked each of the 21 democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential primary 18 questions. Question 16 entered into our area of expertise: “What is your comfort food on the campaign trail?” The answers proved to be far more revealing of what the candidates do not understand about the nature of comfort food than anything else. “Eating healthy on the campaign trail is incredibly difficult, and some candidates try harder than others,” summarized the Times. “But we wanted to know what snack these candidates reach for when they just need food that makes them feel good.”

Rightfully, the Times sets up eating healthfully in contrast with comfort food. Wrongfully, many of the candidates seemed to confuse “comfort food” with “food they think people should know they are eating,” because answers like “veggies” (Cory Booker), “vegan cupcakes” (Tulsi Gabbard), and “none” (Marianne Williamson) are distinctly misunderstanding the concept.

In a 2015 article, The Atlantic dove into the nature of comfort food and came out with the accepted definition that it is “food associated with the security of childhood.” In other words, they said, “certain foods promise solace as much as they do fuel.”

Looking at the list, a few people seem to have named solace-promising foods: Elizabeth Warren’s chips and guacamole, Kamala Harris’ choice of fries, and Amy Klobuchar’s baked potato. While Kirsten Gillibrand’s whiskey seems on target, somehow the drink choice of Julián Castro — iced tea — seems a little thin for much comfort. Pete Buttigieg’s choice of beef jerky fits the question but is about the most Midwest dude-bro answer possible.

But it’s the idea that Williamson has no comfort food that seems concerning (just pick something normal to make the audience happy!). Booker’s choice of “veggies,” on the other hand, was also odd. He later took to Twitter to explain himself, specifying the Brussels sprouts at Vonda’s Kitchen in New Jersey (which would have been a far better answer in the first place). Similarly, rather than just saying “cupcakes,” Gabbard felt the need to make sure everyone knew they were vegan — not something that necessarily changes if they are comfort food or not, simply something that sounds like campaign spin, not food preference.

Despite what they say, I’m dubious from these answers that any of these people truly remember the pleasure of diving into matzoh ball soup, albondigas, or scrambled eggs with tomatoes like their parents made. They have spent so long grooming a public persona, it seems, that even comfort food concepts come from what they’re told, rather than what they feel.

Unfortunately, it seems that they may be right, as the idea of comfort food has yet to be scientifically proven. “People are resilient with or without their snacks,” The Atlantic piece found. “Meaning that ‘comfort food’ may be nothing more than an excuse to indulge in an old favorite.” Or, for candidates, the opportunity to name the food they think that people want a president to eat.