Tabling the issues: Tracing the connection between Asheville food and politics

Image 1. Pizza Parties: At Blue Mountain Pizza in Weaverville, the Chicago-style Obama pie (left) and the clam chowder-inspired Romney concoction face off to predict the president. Image 2. Sittin’ pretty: plaques mark the chairs and table where the Obamas sat during their visit to Corner Kitchen in April 2010.

Your mama probably warned you not to talk politics at the dinner table. Turns out, there's a reason for that conventional wisdom.

“You can't disconnect the brain and your gut,” says Dr. Kisha Weiser of Asheville Gastroenterology. “If you entered a stressful or challenging conversation at the table, you can imagine, some people manifest stress or anxiety, and that plays out in the G.I. tract.”

The result of stress on your innards can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Weiser says stress exacerbates functional bowel disorders, including irritable bowl syndrome. Couple stress with distraction and a little acid reflux, and Weiser says your heated dinner-table talk could turn into a trip to the emergency room to have a food impaction removed.

The connection between the mind and the stomach, Weiser explains, is called the brain-gut axis. “Is there any evidence to suggest that you have poor digestion specifically if you get into these conversations at the dinner table? Probably not,” she says. “It does heighten your body's response to G.I. stimulus, including eating.”

Still, despite the warnings of mothers and gastroenterologists, politics and food have a way of coming together. In the spirit of the upcoming Nov. 6 election, Xpress delves into the convergence of the palatable and the political.

Catering to the constituents

Terry Van Duyn braves the consequences of talking politics over food as a matter of course, and she says she's never experienced these negative effects. “I would have indigestion all the time,” says the District 3 candidate for county commissioner. “I love being engaged. I love it when people disagree with me. It gets me thinking, and I think that improves digestion.”

In the primaries, Van Duyn wrote the largest check of any county commission candidate, but she didn't spend the money on campaign ads or flyers. The $4,563.56 paid for the food for her kickoff event. She acknowledges that the price tag looks large, but while many other local politicians ask their volunteers to prepare refreshments, she says she would rather focus her team on spreading the campaign's message.

She believes that hospitality is central to politics. “There's always a fellowship component around food,” she says. “I'm trying to think if I've ever been to a function where there was no food at all. I'm sure there have been, but I can't remember any.”

Van Duyn leaves all the catering for the events she hosts — from nonprofit fundraisers to political parties — in the hands of Laurey Masterton, owner of Laurey's Catering on Biltmore Avenue.

Masterton says she makes particular choices about her clients' political gatherings. “For a political event, my wish is that the people stay there longer, so they get to talk to the candidate more,” she says. “If there's nice food, then they'll talk to [the candidate], and then they'll eat and then come back and then talk some more.”

Perhaps on account of Masterton's approach to food, the dining room at Laurey's has become an informal meeting place for local politicians. In addition to Van Duyn, Patsy Keever (Democratic candidate for the U.S. House in the 10th Congressional District), Drew Reisinger (incumbent candidate for Buncombe County register of deeds) and Cecil Bothwell (Asheville City Council member) meet up at Laurey's.

For Masterton, hanging with politicians is nothing new. Her father, John Masterton, served in the Vermont House of Representatives in the '60s and introduced the famous legislation that banned billboards from the state.

Do politicians eat what they are?

Politician or writer, to have a cheese named in your honor is a worthy aspiration. Eighteenth-century French writer, eater and political dynamo Jean Brillat-Savarin achieved such immortality (the eponymous cheese is mild and gooey), and left humanity with the wisdom, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”

In light of Brillat-Savarin's idea, Xpress asked several Asheville-area politicians what they eat. We leave our readers to decipher the connection between identity and diet in Brillat-Savarin fashion.

Although the race for the 10th Congressional District is heated, opponents Patsy Keever (Democrat) and Patrick McHenry (incumbant Republican) can agree on one thing: the merits of Italian food. Keever told Xpress in an email that such cuisine is one of her favorites. McHenry agrees. “My wife — her father is from Italy, came to the United States when he was in high school — so I love great Italian food,” he says.

McHenry laments that his constituents and aids often make assumptions about his taste in food based on his party affiliation. “I think the stereotype is that liberal food is tastier food, more refined, and that conservative food must only be pork barbecue and steak,” he says. “And it's not. From vegetarian dishes to creative dishes to anything from around the world, I'm game.”

In N.C. House District 116, however, Xpress cannot report any dietary commonalities. We asked candidates Tim Moffitt (incumbent Republican) and Jane Whilden (Democrat) what they enjoy for breakfast. According to an email, Whilden starts the day off with oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon and brown sugar in the winter and a smoothie with pineapple, peaches, blueberries, strawberries and vanilla yogurt in the summer.

Moffitt, on the other hand, did not respond to any of several queries regarding his breakfast favorites.

Corner Kitchen feeds the presidential race

No matter who wins the nation's highest office in November, restaurant owner Joe Scully will have fed the president. Mitt Romney dined on Corner Kitchen Catering when he made his Oct. 10 Asheville stop, and President Obama visited the Corner Kitchen in April, 2010, while vacationing with the first lady.

Scully says the Romney party called in their order the day before the event. “It was exciting to get the call and do that,” he says. “I wanted them to taste Asheville food, not generic food.”

Romney presumably took a break from the peanut butter and honey sandwiches he reportedly favors (according to Fox News and U.S. News & World Report) and dined on Hickory Nut Gap rib-eye; a savory bread pudding made from Annie's Bakery rye bread and local mushrooms; and braised greens.

Scully reflects favorably on his run-ins with both presidential contenders, although he adds that a small number of his Corner Kitchen customers have debased the Obama connection. “One guy wanted to know what table President Obama sat at so he could go and set it on fire,” he says. “Actually, when he said that, my business partner, Kevin, essentially asked the guy to leave. It was so far out of bounds that it was a shame.”

He figures that 99 percent of the Corner Kitchen's guests enjoy the presidential table whether or not they like the man who sat there. More than two years after the presidential backside graced its seat, Obama's chair remains a popular photo-op for restaurant guests.

While Scully says he doesn't like to talk about his political beliefs in relation to his restaurant, he can attest that Obama has been good for business, at least as far as the Corner Kitchen is concerned. “After he came, we looked at our business increase about 10 percent beyond what we thought it was going to be all the way through to October of that year,” he says. “We called it 'the Obama 10 percent.'”

The Corner Kitchen could feel the Obama business bump a second time. On Oct. 2, the restaurant was featured on the Travel Channel's Travel Like a President.

Pizza for president

In Weaverville, Blue Mountain Pizza has hosted the presidential candidates in the 2012 race and in 2008, albeit in pizza form. For the elections, the pizza pros create a pie for each candidate and tally the sales to predict who will become the next commander in chief.

In 2008, the pizzas correctly predicted Obama's win. In fact, the Obama pizza was so popular that it's still on the menu four years later under a different name. They call it The Islander, and it was designed with Obama's Hawaiian roots in mind. The black pepper and parmesan crust features a barbecue-based sauce topped with marinated pork, pineapple, red onions, jalapeños and smoked Gouda cheese.

“Maybe the man isn't popular with everybody, but that pizza sure is,” says general manager Chris LaFond.

This year, they based Obama's pizza transformation on his time in Chicago. “It's a traditional deep dish with ample sauce and cheese,” LaFond says. Toppings include pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, onions and green peppers.

Romney's gubernatorial state, Massachusetts, provides the basis for his pie. “We decided to kind of go on a New England clam chowder gets kind of revamped pizza,” LaFond says. “What that is, is an Alfredo base to kind of mimic the creaminess of the clam chowder, and then we use clams as a pizza topping with garlic and bacon.”

The sales predict another win for Obama. LaFond says the pizza makers tried to make the pies equally appealing, but customers have been put off by clams on a pizza.

“We're just trying to remember to keep things fun and enjoy a pint and some pizza, and when the day is through, don't worry so much about the politics of it all,” he says. “We're going to move forward as a country regardless of who's in the top office.”

The politician's pizzas will be on the menu through the end of October, LaFond says, and the winning pie could become a permanent menu item. But The Islander will be on the menu throughout the election season for diners who want take a bitw out of the president and for those who want to connect with him as personified by pizza.

Emily Patrick can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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