The new feminists’ kitchen campaigns

elizabeth-warren-beer

Elizabeth Warren awkwardly enjoys her beer (bostonmagazine.com).

Will the Democratic 2020 presidential primary resemble a season of “Top Chef”? Having elected the star of “The Apprentice” to the Oval Office, America is about to see the Democratic take on reality television. So far, food appears to be central to the plot.

Several Democrats, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have begun inviting us into their home kitchens to watch them cook. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old from New York who has made headlines by overturning Democratic party traditions, recently kicked it all off by cooking macaroni and cheese live on Instagram.

This wouldn’t be particularly remarkable if the Democrats’ last presidential nominee hadn’t been the baby boomers’ most famous feminist politician. That would be the very same woman who derided baking when the country was first getting to know her back in 1992. For those too young to remember, Hillary Clinton answered a reporter’s question about her career by replying, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.”

Like all parents, Clinton is entitled to her own balance of work and family, but with that one comment she unnecessarily alienated many women who had prioritized motherhood over career. Clinton apologized for the remark, but the damage could not be undone.

Today, female congresswomen see food and domesticity as a way to differentiate themselves. After years of organized feminists lecturing the nation that “a woman’s place is in the House — and Senate,” apparently some liberal women now revel in the comfort of their own kitchens. Clearly something has changed.

Recent years have seen the rise of televised cooking competitions and celebrity chefs, including many men, who elevate food preparation to an art form. But I don’t think that fully explains this political trend. In the case of Ocasio-Cortez, her social media food preparation has worked so far because it stems from her personality. Mac and cheese is a relatable 20-something dinner. It’s cheap and easy to make. Livestreaming something so mundane is also classically millennial.

But how does it all look on 50-somethings Harris and Gillibrand? On Jan. 1, Harris tweeted: “Cooked New Year’s Day dinner with my best friend for our families. Black-eyed peas for good luck. Greens for prosperity.” The tweet doesn’t offer much information about who cooked what, but Harris offers insight into food that is meaningful to her, while also celebrating friendship and a secular holiday. Given trends of younger Americans delaying marriage and family, as well as the rise of religious “nones,” this image potentially appeals to a sizable swath of Democratic primary voters.

The tweet also works for Harris because it builds on an already expressed interest. Last August, California’s junior senator told New York Magazine that she reads recipes to relax. “What makes me feel normal is making Sunday-night family dinner. If I’m cooking, I feel like I’m in control of my life.” She also shared a picture of herself cooking for Thanksgiving on Facebook.

For her part, Gillibrand not only posed with a berry cobbler for a New Year’s dinner but also shared her handwritten recipe for it. That she tweaked this particular cobbler to “use gluten free muesli for my oats” warmed the hearts of Americans with allergies. This tweet is not the first time New York’s junior senator has demonstrated an interest in cooking. She mentioned baking muffins with her sons during a 2009 interview and filmed a live cooking demonstration at a rural Memorial Day fair in 2013.

The only one of the three presidential aspirants whose gambit flopped is Warren. Her previous moment of culinary fame, of course, was her plagiarized contribution to the 1984 cookbook Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes.

On New Year’s Eve, as Warren looked toward 2020, she livestreamed herself cooking dinner on Instagram, but it was so forgettable that all anyone has talked about is the awkward way wine-track Warren imbibed her beer. Warren’s advisers would have served her better by stocking a tasty local beer such as Samuel Adams, rather than Michelob Light. Regardless, the whole production felt inauthentic and therefore ineffective.

It’s not clear that Warren is either a foodie or an aspiring chef in her downtime. Social media has shattered the fourth wall, and voters now want to feel like they personally know their elected officials. Is this someone they’d get a beer with or invite for dinner? Does this person understand them? The most potent marketing tool a candidate now has at her disposal is her authentic self.

If that self is original, creative, or quirky, like Ocasio-Cortez, all the better for finding and captivating a loyal audience. By contrast, Warren’s foray into kitchen Instagramming looks like an ill-fitting dress. It might be beautiful in theory, but it doesn’t work for her, just as it didn’t for Clinton.

Still, the image of a feminist in the kitchen is more acceptable today than it was in 1992. Perhaps cooking and baking have different connotations for Generation X and millennials than they did for older baby boomers.

It’s been decades since most girls grew up hearing they had to be housewives. Today, if women stay home to raise children, it’s a choice. If women devote themselves to the culinary arts, that’s also a choice, and quite possibly a creative hobby or a way to relax. Cooking is also a way to show love for one’s family or community. It’s a healthy, relatable activity. No wonder a growing number of Democratic pols are gravitating toward food to show Americans just how much they really care.

This article appeared in the Washington Examiner magazine.

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