Food & Politics FP_WYMAN_CHOCCHIP_FI_001

Baking Up A New President

The politics (and politicians) of the chocolate chip cookie

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A chapter or sidebar focusing on celebrity fans is a standard part of any single subject food book. As the author of four such books, I have spent a fair amount of time playing food gossipmonger. In researching my latest book, The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book, I was struck by the unusually large number of politicians who are chocolate chip cookie lovers.

That love starts at the top. Former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier says he baked chocolate chip cookies almost every day of a 24-year tenure spanning the Jimmy Carter, George Bush 1 and 2, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton administrations. Although more famous for his fondness for jelly beans, Reagan always had chocolate chip cookies at hand when traveling, according to his personal secretary, Kathy Osborne.

Among chocolate chip-loving politicians who have put their money where their mouths were: Late U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers, who once owned 10 percent of his son Brent’s Brent & Sam cookie company; former U.S. Senator John Tunney, who was part of the investors’ group that took over the Famous Amos cookie company in 1985; and former presidential candidate and current Secretary of State John Kerry, founder of a Boston cookie stand that is still going strong.

Although it attracted minor attention compared to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Kerry’s Kilvert & Forbes cookie store was also the source of a political scandal, when David’s Cookies founder David Liederman accused Kerry of ripping off his chain’s franchise plan — down to the cartoony typeface still used for the Kilvert & Forbes’ logo. Kerry denied the charge and Liederman undercut his own complaint by saying that he was going to vote for Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign anyway (mainly because of how much he disliked George W. Bush, “although Bush never stole David’s Cookies from me,” Liederman told a reporter at the time).

Chocolate chip cookies were also reportedly one of two reasons the late U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy used to pack on the pounds between election runs (the other reason being ice cream).

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Secretary of State John Kerry opens a box of cookies from his old Boston cookie shop, a birthday present from his staff at the State Department. Note the the Kilvert & Forbes logo typeface. Courtesy of the State Department

Why so much love for the chocolate chip cookie from American politicians?

I believe it’s a manifestation of their common touch or, in this case, taste. Forget apple pie and ice cream: Chocolate chip cookies are really America’s favorite sweet. Chocolate chip cookies are the first thing most Americans bake as kids and often the only dessert many make as adults, accounting for more than half of all cookies baked at home. It’s also the most popular cookie purchased in America, sold everywhere from McDonald’s to Thomas Keller’s tony Bouchon bakeries in California, New York and Las Vegas.

Like Americans themselves, the chocolate chip cookie is friendly, straightforward and democratic — accessible to all at its many price and quality levels and forms (like the mega-hit spinoff ice cream sandwiches and chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream). Politicians that can relate to this cookie can also relate to us.

The chocolate chip cookie’s political bellwether status is exemplified by Family Circle magazine’s once-every-four-years’ Presidential Cookie Bake-Off. It started as a fun response to Hillary Clinton’s infamous reply to a reporter’s question during her husband’s 1992 presidential campaign. When asked about her work for the politically connected Rose Law Firm, in what was then widely regarded as a putdown of stay-at-home moms, she snapped, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.”

The contest, where potential first spouses’ recipes are published, tried and voted on by women across the country, has since been widely derided as outdated and sexist by those who don’t know the backstory and/or have no sense of humor. But it’s also become the edible Ohio of presidential politics. Ohio has picked the sitting president every time but once, and only once in 20 years has the Family Circle contest winner not ended up baking her cookies in the White House. That was in 2008, the first time when neither of the competing recipes was some kind of riff on the chocolate chip cookie.

Coincidence? I think not.

The contest results are widely reported online and are arguably the only reason many people have even heard of Family Circle, an 84-year-old magazine whose typical reader is a “busy mom” whose “top priority and greatest joy is her family,” according to its website.

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Which brings us to this November’s presidential election: Where do the candidates stack up, chocolate chip cookie-wise?

Donald Trump is mostly a meat and French fries man (although he did make some political noise about having to swear off Oreos this past November after learning that Mondelez International had shifted some Oreo cookie production from Chicago to Mexico).

New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie’s obvious love of food is not indiscriminate. In his May 2015 Foodgate mini-scandal, it was revealed that $1,250 of the $300,000 food-and-drink petty cash expenditures was spent at The Cravory, an online cookie shop.

Ron Paul and Bobby Jindal have both long professed their love of the chocolate chip cookie, with Jindal even going so far as to post his favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe on the Louisiana governor’s official website. Jindal supporters trace the beginning of the end of his presidential hopes to the June 2015 day he picked Hillary Clinton’s cookies over his own in a Wall Street Journal-staged taste test. (Watch the video here.)

Hillary Clinton’s chocolate chip cookie recipe, with its modern, health-conscious oatmeal, won the Family Circle contest both times her husband ran for president. In the battle against Barbara Bush’s Toll House clone, Hillary’s won by a greater percentage of the vote than Bill did in his non-cookie contest with George H. W. Bush (55.2 percent versus Bill’s 43 percent). Assuming Bill uses the same recipe, we could be looking at a second President Clinton soon.

I am only half kidding. Though we all know we’re supposed to be voting based on the candidates’ positions on ISIS, education, and the economy, those things are all very hard to understand and relate to, and frankly boring compared to a candidate’s favorite animal, food or clothing. Hillary’s husband helped start this kind of (not) elevated political discourse when he decided to answer MTV’s “boxers or briefs” question in 1994, and it has grown with the Internet and the many endless celebrity trivia stories.

Don’t just take my word for it. German academic Andreas Graefe (a research fellow at LMU in Munich), has studied the impact of candidate personality on election outcomes extensively and he says, in non-incumbent years like this one, candidates’ experience and personalities play a larger role in voting decisions.

In the U.S., this likability factor is typically reduced to the question: Which candidate would you most like to have a beer with? While just as informal, the chocolate chip cookie’s associations with mom and home add an element of teddy bear snuggliness. That appealing attribute has been successfully exploited in longtime successful branding campaigns by Midwest Airlines and DoubleTree hotels. So, why not by presidential candidates too? And may the best chocolate chip cookie-loving politician win. •

Carolyn Wyman is the author of seven food books, including Spam: A Biography, Jell-O: A Biography, Better Than Homemade, The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book and The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book. She writes, heats, and eats in Philadelphia, the birthplace of our country and Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks.

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