It’s only a 39-second video, and the word only appears in it twice, but that was enough. “Thought I’d do some grocery shopping, I’m at Wegner’s,” a man in a tight blue shirt and slacks says to a camera while walking through a produce section. “And I’m—my wife wants some vegetables for crudité, right?”
He picks out some items for a raw vegetable platter, including, a bit confusingly, asparagus and salsa. He adds up the prices. “That’s $20 for crudité,” he concludes, before adding, also confusingly, “and this doesn’t include the tequila!”
That man was Republican Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet “Dr. Oz” Oz. And that video was supposed to show voters that he shared their alarm about inflation. The setting was actually a store called Redner’s, which Oz conflated with a different chain called Wegman’s. The clip was released by the Oz campaign in April to little notice, but went megaviral in August after Oz won the Republican nomination and became the subject of sustained attacks by his opponent, Democratic candidate John Fetterman.
Fetterman, despite coming from a well-to-do background, has a low-key, “regular guy” public persona, and his staff took great pleasure, even before the grocery clip came to its attention, in satirizing Oz on social media as a fancyman struggling to do an impression of a normal Pennsylvanian. But it was the celebrity doctor’s use of a French word in a humble supermarket produce aisle that gave Fetterman’s team an opening to launch the campaign’s heaviest barrage of class warfare.
Obama staffer-turned-Crooked Media podcaster Tommy Vietor appears to be the one to have kicked off the recirculation of the video on Aug. 14. (Vietor directed me to Crooked’s director of digital development, Elijah Cone, whom he credits with bringing the previously obscure clip to the staff’s attention the night before at a live event in Atlanta. “There was a veggie platter backstage,” Cone said. “I walked in and cracked a joke like, ‘Why is there no asparagus in this?’ No one knew what I was talking about, so I showed them.”) Fetterman’s team picked it up a day later, humped it for what it said was a $500,000 one-day fundraising haul, and referenced it nine more times on Twitter alone during the race. The Fetterman campaign served crudité at its victory party in November.
The crudité video did not have an identifiable effect on Oz’s overall poll performance. But it did become a shorthand for some of the themes—phoniness, carpetbagging, generally being a little off—that caused problems for Oz and for several other Trump-endorsed Senate candidates who ran in this year’s midterms.
Food, being such a widely shared reference point, has long been used as a cudgel in campaigning. In 1840, supporters of Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison contrasted his rugged taste for hard cider with the champagne supposedly preferred by Democratic snob Martin Van Buren. (This year, Republican Colorado Senate candidate Joe O’Dea took grief for putting ice in his beer.)
Several Republican presidents in the late 19th and early 20th century, including Theodore Roosevelt, made it known that they’d eaten meals of possum in what was assumed at the time to be a gesture toward Black voters in the South (where the animal was often consumed by both Black and white people in the fall and early winter). As University of Tulsa professor Emily Contois has written, modern presidential candidates almost all use the Iowa State Fair, and its abundance of fried food and meat, to demonstrate that they appreciate a high-calorie fat bomb just as much as the next American. (They also, however, don’t want to be caricatured as slobs, which creates such situations as Elizabeth Warren getting into her car while still carrying a corn dog she’d been given at an event, presumably because she didn’t want to be seen eating it or throwing it away.)
“Crudité” was a notable flash point this year because it inverted the usual modern American relationship between liberalism and food. Typically, in this era, the candidate belittling his opponent by raising the subject of vegetables is a Republican suggesting that Democrats are snobs who eat too-fancy food like arugula, kale, or in one more recent, millennial-inflected iteration, avocado toast.
A Nexis search suggests the stereotype of liberals as elite vegetable enthusiasts got off the ground in the 1990s, sometimes paired with hoarier pejoratives about “wine and cheese” or “brie and chardonnay.” As the latter construction suggests, one link between many foods it’s supposedly problematic to eat is Frenchness—and according to this 2018 New York Times piece, crudité was in fact popularized in the U.S. during the post-WWII period by chefs and other hosts inspired by its use in southern France.
Fetterman and Oz demonstrated that a taste for expensive food can be still considered suspicious on both sides of the aisle, while the late political satirist P.J. O’Rourke actually used arugula as an example of the food Republicans eat, because it was served at country club–type restaurants. That said, the predominant current stereotype is not an entirely arbitrary one: An interest in organic vegetables could mean that one identifies as an environmentalist, while familiarity with European culture is a trait known to distinguish academics. Both of those groups lean left. In any case, there’s no disputing that many voters, particularly white ones who didn’t graduate from college, believe that Democrats look down on them. This belief was one of the factors that can be shown to have increasingly motivated the white working class’s voting choices during the early part of the 20th century, and food considered desirable by white-collar professionals served as a useful symbol of the WWC’s beef (hahaha) with that cohort.
Still, during the last three voting cycles, Democrats have succeeded in convincing the public in aggregate that their candidates are more down-to-earth and normal than the Republicans’ candidates. It’s an ambiguous designation; Republicans began this year’s midterm cycle hopeful that they could pin supposedly wacko, radical views about gender identity, the teaching of systemic racism, and “open borders” on the Dems, but ended up in an uphill battle against perceptions that they were the weird, extreme ones because of Dobbs, abortion bans, and lingering claims about the 2020 election being stolen. (The latter delusions were expressed succinctly by the comically long, self-satisfied drink of Diet Dr. Pepper that “Kraken” conspiracy lawyer Sidney Powell took after telling the Jan. 6 committee about what she believed to be the slam-dunk legal grounding for her plan to have the Army seize the nation’s voting machines.)
Which raises the question: Have arugula and brie insults started to lose their bite (LOL)?
Eating local, natural food has not always connoted elitism in American life, which makes sense if you think about what the culinary options are like down on the farm. Vegetables and whole grains were touted as the humble meal of the godly common man by authorities ranging from Puritan ministers to Sylvester Graham, the 19th-century health advocate and inspiration for graham crackers. More recently, as Slate has been writing for years regarding examples ranging from Starbucks to Panera and Shake Shack to the gastropub, food and beverages made from organic or otherwise high-quality ingredients are now common throughout the U.S., not just in expensive neighborhoods on the coasts. (One upper-tier professional who does not fully participate in these trends is Nancy Pelosi, who in addition to being shown eating a stick of beef jerky in newly released footage taken during the Jan. 6 riot, told reporters in November that the meal she eats most often for lunch is a hot dog. Somewhat conversely, the Pennsylvania-based company Martin’s, which produces the foodie-favored potato buns used on every Shake Shack burger, was one of the major backers of election-denier Doug Mastriano’s disastrous gubernatorial campaign.)
Thus, while the median voter might still chuckle at Dr. Oz’s attempt to look like a normal shopper while saying French words, nice vegetables themselves may have become less potent as a political weapon. On Dec. 4, Republican Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy made headlines when he delivered a riff about “woke” Democrats who eat kale, which he described as tasting “like I’d rather be fat.” Funny stuff, perhaps, but when Kennedy made the remarks he was in Georgia campaigning for Herschel Walker. Whole Foods has twelve locations in Georgia, and as actual grocery shoppers know, the state’s more ubiquitous chain, Kroger, sells organic kale too. Two days later, Walker lost. Preferences change, and symbols change with them. After all, everything has a shelf life.