On Sunday, September 9, 2018, in New York City, the state’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate and the erstwhile Sex in the City star Cynthia Nixon went to Zabar’s. She ordered a cinnamon-raisin bagel with lox, red onions, capers, tomato, and cream cheese. For most people, the story ends right there. For some New Yorkers, it is the beginning of a major issue. In fact, it seems fair to say that this bagel has gotten more attention than any other in human history.
Weighing in on Nixon’s order are serious critics of American culture as well as creeps on Twitter. Representatives of the latter call the bagel everything from “a crime against the bagel gods” to “a crime against humanity.” The New York magazine reporter Chris Crowley calls the bagel “troubling” and argues that all politicians not only could, but should never eat food in public again (although he cannot resist expressing his view that lox and cream cheese only belong on an everything bagel). CNN’s Z. Byron Wolf decries not so much Nixon’s bagel—which he calls “weird”—but the hoopla surrounding it, given that the leadership of New York is at stake; although he devotes a whole column to the bagel, he asserts that it “should not be important at all.” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik describes Nixon’s bagel as a kind of double faux pas—“a faux faux pas”—and urges readers to consider which “actual ethnic food” most represents New York. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t think it’s a bagel.) Gopnik even invokes Karl Marx on the value-form and the commodity fetish, saying that “the whole rhetoric of the bagel” distracts us from the fact that Nixon is responsible, vis-à-vis her involvement with Sex in the City, for “the most sickening New York food trend of the past twenty years—the cupcake craze of the early two-thousands.” Nixon’s own opinion is surprise at the “fascination” over her bagel order. “I’m stunned. This is my bagel of choice for a few decades now. It’s never been public knowledge, and I really am fascinated that people are so emotional about it,” she said.
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 Barack 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 Creams 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, the 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, the then–presidential candidate 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 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, a distinguished anthropology professor at Indiana University at Bloomington who produced a groundbreaking study analyzing globalization, the political economy, and local food, explained it to me this way: “A big principle 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.”
In the 10 years I lived in New York City around the corner from a renowned bagel shop, I never saw anyone order such a creation. Not once. In fact, Nixon’s order is so out-there that it strikes me as something from the work of one of Wilk’s scholarly forebears. The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in a phrase she borrows from the philosopher William James, might call Nixon’s bagel order “matter out of place.” What she means, essentially, is that context is key: A cinnamon-raisin bagel with lox, onions, capers, tomato, and cream cheese is not in and of itself a strange thing, but in the context of the New York City deli, where there are prescribed combinations for bagel toppings that do not include or much resemble this particular one, it becomes so; hence the collective sense of shock and awe over Nixon’s bagel. All of the responses both highbrow and low-down seem to suggest the same: This is not the way we do it here.
Of course, anthropologists have studied food since the discipline’s inception, theorizing ways in which food is a chief material of human connection. Like Wilk and Douglas, many focus on food’s symbolic meanings—on the rules, traditions, totems, and taboos through which food and culture are linked. In 1986, the Indian American anthropologist Arjun Appadurai coined the term gastropolitics. Appadurai uses the word in a specific context— to describe how food mitigates both social rank and equality in Tamil Brahmin life, in which meals are “crucial determinants of future status and reputation.” Yet gastropolitics is widely circulated today to address ways in which people manipulate the food they eat in order to both include and exclude various communities and populations. So Nixon ordered a bagel in order to show, by means of edible evidence, that she is in fact a native New Yorker who says and does things New Yorkers regularly say and do. That she ordered a distinctive type of bagel not many New Yorkers claim to like calls her credibility into question. Should it? That is for the voters to decide.
Bagelgate, as it has come to be known, has done one thing for Nixon: given her a ton of press. The New York gubernatorial primary is Thursday, September 13. Did the bagel get in the way of the issues? Maybe. Do food preferences belong in political debate? You could not separate the two if you tried, no matter how you like your bagel.