How Hungry Is Hillary Clinton?

An analysis of the candidate’s taste buds.

Hillary Clinton

The question, of course, is authenticity, as it seems always to be where Hillary Clinton is concerned. She wrestled with the issue as far back as 1967, when, as a student at Wellesley, she wrote to an old high-school pal, John Peavoy, “There is a smorgasbord of personalities spread before me.”

A smorgasbord, of course, is a diverse buffet from which one can pick and choose those foods that strike the fancy and suit the mood. So which personality has Hillary selected? Or, in correct Scandinavian tradition, is she still going back for seconds and thirds?

That food preferences are clues to personality was the firm belief of French gourmand and essayist Jean Antheleme Brillat-Savarin, who in his 1825 work, The Physiology of Taste, wrote, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” In the absence of an interview with the lady herself, I have pieced together clues to Hillary’s eating habits from various reports, to try to determine whether she is tough and self-assured enough to function as president or is merely a food-fashion victim who opts for the flavor of the moment. Does she indulge wild, instinctive cravings with a hat-over-the-windmill bravado, or is she an abstemiously disciplined eater who can be counted on to make the sensibly healthful choice?

In short, would the real Hillary in a private moment go for an Oliveburger or a Boca Burger? When, in May 2007, Associated Press reporters asked the presidential hopefuls to name the single item that most recalled their back-home origins, Hillary Clinton chose the Oliveburger served at the Pickwick, her high-school hangout in Park Ridge, Ill. This Greek coffee shop is still in business, next door to a landmark Art Deco movie house, also called Pickwick. To find out just what an Oliveburger might be, I called the owner, George Paziotopoulos, who bought the restaurant from his cousin about eight years ago.

“It’s 6 ounces of grilled ground beef sirloin on a toasted hamburger bun with a thick topping of chopped, pimento-stuffed green olives,” he said, pointing out that he was not the owner during Hillary’s time. However, in May 2003, he welcomed her back with Barbara Walters and a local friend in tow, and while filming an interview, they all ate (reportedly “with great relish”) what had been renamed the Hillaryburger, seasoned with Dijon mustard, a pretty fancy condiment for a Greek diner.

Unable to get to Park Ridge to take advantage of the $6.75 Oliveburger special, complete with choice of soup or salad and coleslaw or fruit, I cooked up my own version. It was a powerfully brassy, acidic concoction with the merry Christmas touch of the red and green olive topping that, along with the mustard, zapped any flavor of beef. Strong stuff for a strong palate, I thought, with a certain respect.

Next, I interviewed Walter Scheib, who worked as the White House chef for the Clintons (and, briefly, for the second Bushes). Scheib recently published a cookbook memoir, White House Chef, which offers many clues to Hillary’s preferences. Had she ever asked for an Oliveburger or Hillaryburger, I asked?

“No, but I always kept Boca Burgers in the freezer,” he said, referring to a brand of soy protein patties. “She liked them for snacking.” When I obtained some Boca Burgers and pan-grilled them, as directed, they turned out to be miserably limp, grassy-tasting little disks that might have been produced by Rubbermaid.

And so, the question remains: How could the lover of the lusty Oliveburger ever settle for a Boca Burger? Or had the years wrought changes?

I found few reports of Hillary’s gastronomic adventures at Wellesley, but in one of her soul-searching letters to Peavoy, she referred to a “boy from Dartmouth” with whom she had spent a Saturday evening. The boy turned out to be Robert B. Reich, later a Rhodes scholar with Bill Clinton, and still later the president’s labor secretary. Reich acknowledged that he and Hillary had gone to see the Antonioni film Blowup, during which Hillary wanted popcorn with a lot of butter. “A lot of butter. Significant? You be the judge,” Reich wrote in his blog.

I reserved judgment until I was able to learn of her other preferences and contradictions in Scheib’s book. To the first lady’s credit, when she hired Scheib away from the Greenbrier, a spa resort in West Virginia, she insisted on having American cooking rather than traditional French fare, wishing to reflect the ethnic diversity of the country and to showcase American food and wine producers. Call it patriotic or merely politically correct, but that was the culinary persona she chose to project.

At his tryout luncheon for the Clintons, Scheib prepared pecan-crusted lamb with morel sauce and discovered that lamb is Hillary’s favorite meat. This in itself indicates a certain palate sophistication, because lamb has a more complex, gamey flavor than easier-to-like beef, veal, or pork. The sweet potatoes Scheib served with it were spiked with red curry paste. The Clintons loved them, and this prompted Scheib to keep assorted hot sauces on hand at all times. Could the first couple’s affection for spice also offer a personality clue? According to research performed years ago by Dr. Paul Rozin and Deborah Schiller at the University of Pennsylvania, people who love hot chilies are considered limited risk takers; they are the kind of people who are willing to gamble or ride roller coasters. (One has to wonder what would constitute a limited risk in current geopolitical terms.)

Although many family meals in the Clinton White House were based on fish and vegetables, with a minimum of starches (it was the Atkins and Dean Ornish era, after all), things were different if Bill or Hillary were eating alone. Hillary went for the exotic flavors of the Middle East—baba ghanouj, hummus, and tahini. And if President Clinton was on his own for dinner, he invariably canceled the healthful meal that had been ordered for him and asked Scheib to dig into his secret stash of prime meat and grill a 24-ounce porterhouse steak with béarnaise sauce and fried onion rings, evidence that marital cheating can take many forms.

Being a woman, Hillary is expected to cook, something that is rarely demanded of a male political candidate. Once when she was asked if she was good at it, she answered candidly, “I’m a lousy cook, but I make pretty good soft scrambled eggs.” Soft scrambled eggs—another indication of a stylish palate as are omelets and tossed salads, specialties that she copped to on another occasion.

Of all the eating Hillary Clinton has done, none could be more trying than that required along the campaign trail. Accepting, and then relishing, the specialties of a particular constituency—the more ethnic or regional the better—has become part of the American political ritual. “Love me, love my food,” seems to be the challenge, while to refuse or, perhaps even worse, to start eating something and then not finish it, is seen as a flat-out rejection. In June 2007, Eugene Fraise, the Democratic senator from Iowa, held a barbecue honoring Hillary at his farm. “We’re not going to vote for them if they don’t sit down at our table and have coffee,” he said.

And not only coffee. Think hero sandwiches, pizza, calzone, ribs, fried chicken, corn on the cob, nachos, fajita-filled tortillas, pancakes, waffles, kielbasa, pirogi, dim sum, knishes, lox and bagels, and more.

Candidates on the campaign trail also feel pressure to eat competitively, as Hillary discovered in 2000, when she ran for a New York Senate seat against Long Island Republican Rick Lazio. A week after Lazio admitted to being less than enthralled with the sausage, peppers, and onion sandwich that he was served at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, the Clintons arrived, and they both sat down to a very public lunch of that same local specialty. “It’s great,” Hillary announced through a mouthful of the greasy, dripping creation. She even wore a bib.

As Hillary’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination progresses, so must her waistline, a situation guaranteed to add stress. Judging by various accounts, much of her public snacking in Iowa consisted of sweet and creamy desserts, perhaps another weakness (Walter Scheib reported that while in the White House, Hillary, like Chelsea, loved Dove bars). Following news reports, I traced the Clintons’ visit to Whitey’s Ice Cream shop in Davenport, Iowa, where, via telephone, Jan, the store manager, said that she had witnessed Hillary order a Drumstick—a chocolate-and-chopped-nut-coated vanilla ice cream on a stick—while Bill had peach yogurt in a waffle cone. Asked if they each finished the whole thing, Jan replied, “They sure did!” That was only the first of three caloric pit stops within 30 hours. The couple went on to a Dairy Queen in Nashua, where Bill sipped a strawberry malt while Hillary chose the raspberry, and then they dropped into another D.Q. near Grinnell, where Bill had a grilled chicken sandwich and for good behavior was rewarded with a taste of Hillary’s Snickers Blizzard.

For a final bit of insight into food and its meanings, consider the video that the Clinton campaign put out parodying the final episode of The Sopranos, in which Tony and Carmela and A.J. eat onion rings together at a diner. In the Clinton version, Hillary orders carrot sticks instead of onion rings, and when Bill protests, she tells him, “I’m looking out for ya.’ ” Ann Althouse, a law professor who writes a popular blog from Madison, Wis., conjectured on the deeper meaning of the carrot sticks: “I doubt if any blogger will disagree with my assertion that, coming from Bill Clinton, the ‘O’ of an onion ring is a vagina symbol. Hillary says no to that, driving the symbolism home. … [And] what does she have for him? Carrot sticks! … Here, Bill, in retaliation for all of your excessive ‘O’ consumption, you may have a large bowl of phallic symbols.”

In the end, how can anyone not admire a woman who, like so many of us, is torn between renunciation and appetite, with a weakness for the hot and spicy and the cool and sweet, and who surely represents the people’s palate?

Significant? You be the judge.