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Jeff Houck’s Power Lunch: Food on the presidential campaign trail

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Now that the silly season of presidential election politics has descended upon us, it’s time to prepare for the inevitable photographic onslaught of candidates shoving food into their pie holes.

With close to 20 candidates in the race at this point – Rick Perry may be driving to Amscot for a payday loan as we speak – the potential pot pie of political food porn promises to be extra chunky with fresh ingredients.

The Gob Shot is the photo moment campaign managers and event wranglers alternately crave and loathe at the same time. They love what such a pic does to humanize their politico – “Hey, he/she eats! Just like you!” But they alternately gird for the terrible moment when their candidate looks utterly ridiculous trying to throat a corn dog in public.

As with kissing babies on a rope line or posing for frozen-lipped, unblinking, fake-enthusiastic selfies with supporters, eating for the camera is a political art that must be studied, practiced and mastered.

Some are more proficient than others.

Watching Bill Clinton cradle a burger in the early 1990s was like watching the Hope Diamond in the hands of a master thief. His wife, however, has the opposite touch. Hillary’s stops at mom-and-pop diners on the campaign trail in 2008 provided a horrific montage of unhinged jaws and bug-eyed bites.

Competitive hot dog eaters look more comfortable in front of a plate of food than she does.

I keep a running Flickr gallery of celebrity eating shots – yes, I’m that guy — because they’re fascinating to consider and provide unguarded moments. Seeing ear aficionado Mike Tyson attacking a leafy Caesar salad outdoors in a knit cap is a joy forever.

More than entertainment, shots of politicians eating are a window into the soul.

For all his many flaws, Richard Nixon’s chopstick game was tight during his crucial trip to China in 1972. Someone clearly prepped the former violinist on his finger technique before meeting Mao.

Barack Obama made eating deep-fried frog legs look cool in 2008. Back then, he made everything look cool. John McCain also made everything Barack Obama did look cool.

But Mike Huckabee’s visible depression the moment before he gnawed at a pork chop on a stick at a state fair in 2008 was all the litmus test I needed. His pink Polo button-down may have said he was ready to get his eat on, but his eyes clearly are doing some soul-based accounting. They’re screaming, “How many of these goddamn things do I have to chew to get to the Oval Office?” Anybody who comes back to the political buffet for another helping of such culinary humiliation clearly has deep psychological issues.

Florida’s I-4 Corridor once again will be the Fertile Crescent of electoral politicking in the next 15 months. In the interest of helping their advance teams plan for some cooler-than-cool photo ops that showcase their candidatte’s humanity, I’ve compiled some suggested locations to maximize their political gain while making their obligatory mastication a little more palatable.

West Tampa Sandwich Shop – Obama’s visit in 2012 to this tiny shop on north Armenia Avenue was a huge media win for the campaign and no doubt boosted his voter tally among Tampa’s Hispanic voters. Marco Rubio could drop some fluent-Spanish and do well here. The table setup might be a bit tight for Chris Christie. I’m just saying. You’ll never make it to D.C. if you knock over someone’s garbonzo soup.

Thai Temple – Drop in on a Sunday morning at this outdoor Thai food hall at Wat Mongkolrata Temple on the Palm River in Tampa and you hit several demographics at once: The hipster food voter, the rapidly growing Asian population of Tampa and the transplanted military rank and file who miss the food they had while stationed overseas. Hillary would look great glad-handing among the Pad Thai, picnic tables and towering palms. Scott Walker would look like Scott Walker always does; like a new dad who can’t find his toddler in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese.

Brew Hub – Pull the campaign buses into this craft beer brewing and tasting room Mecca off I-4 in Lakeland and you’ll not only get the attention of hopheads who will love this genuflection toward the state’s exploding beer scene, the press bus will thank you for guiding them to alcohol and WiFi. Ben Carson and Rand Paul could stand to loosen their loafers here. Ted Cruz should avoid stopping. The last thing a guy running for the executive branch needs is to look like Dracula on spring break.

Parkesdale Farm Market – Plant City’s iconic “Garden of Eatin’” was important enough for George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara to visit this blue-collar shrine to strawberry shortcake. George’s son Jeb stopped by while he was Florida’s governor. He’d be wise to do so again during his presidential campaign. Obama shook hands amid strawberry milkshakes. Bernie Sanders would kill here. In February, half the place is full of Vermonters. In a perfect political world, Donald Trump would make a pit stop to duck-face and pretend smile on his way to Parkesdale’s strawberry throne, where he would then place a strawberry crown on his tinted strawberry crown.

Lucky for him, they don’t serve Bloody Marys.

Food writer Jeff Houck was the Tampa Tribune's food editor from 2002 to 2014, before becoming marketing and public relations director at Locale Market. He contributes to WUSF radio and He previously edited and wrote for, the Palm Beach Post, the Anchorage Times and the Pensacola News-Journal. Houck can be reached at [email protected]

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