Yes, it's easy—and fun!—to make fun of Trump's taste in well-done steaks. But the president's stance on food reveals other, bigger, issues.
Shortly before he was kicked to the curb, the former White House Communications Director Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci was asked during a BBC interview what about President Trump was not elitist. Was it, the interlocutor Emily Maitlis wondered, the business side or the politics side or the inheritance side? (Side note: God bless the BBC.) To this the Mooch fanboyed “Oh my god, there are so many things about the President. What about the cheeseburgers? What about the pizzas we eat?” To which Maitlis quickly and incredulously responded, “Everybody eats cheeseburgers and pizza. What are you talking about?”
To parse the fart words of a gasbag is to poop suck pee brains. However, there is something to be gleaned by the Mooch’s answer. Pizza and cheeseburgers, at least in Trumpland, are not just the food of the middle class but the ordinaries on its escutcheon. It would be impossible for Trump to be an elite, so argues the Mooch, for he eats like the working man. One needn’t note that the Platinum Burger at the Trump Grill at the Trump Tower costs $22 or that the Trump Supreme pizza in the Pizza Di Trump section of the menu at the Trump Chicago hotel costs $24. Such nuance would be lost on Trump and anyway, he—like the rest of us—is using pizza and cheeseburgers in their emoji form. The days of arugula, he dog-whistles, are long gone.
There was a brief moment during the election and the early days of the Trump administration during which it seemed, perhaps, that Trump might eat out on the reg. And that, like Barack Obama before him, he would eat well. Who can forget his dramatically lit conclave with Reince Priebus and Mitt Romney at Jean-Georges immediately post-election? In photographs of the meal, Romney looks abashed like a raccoon mid-fuck caught in a NatGeo doc while Trump grins like a hyena and Reince smiles like a lamb being led to slaughter which, though he didn’t know it then, he was. It was noted at the time, of course, that Jean-Georges is situated in a Trump property but, because after 20 years Jean-Georges is still one of the best restaurants in New York, it was just as likely Trump wasn’t acting in a self-promotional manner but rather a desire for Vongerichten’s finely wrought globally inflected Alsatian cuisine. Well, nope.
Since then, Donald J. Trump has proven himself not just the least competent commander-in-chief but the worst eater in the West Wing since Gerry Ford’s famous tamale incident of 1976. The man has the tastes of a pile of crumpled-up Kleenex. Like so much of Trumpworld’s absurdity, his eating habits are almost cartoonishly metaphorical. Despite Mooch’s assertion, he prefers steak to burgers since steak is, as we know, the manliest of all meat. Trump, being a very manly guy who likes driving trucks and grabbing pussy, naturally prefers it.
Pursuant to the above, Trump’s preference for the best, he orders his steaks—and cheeseburgers—well done. The reasoning here is on the nose: Obviously, well done is better than done and why have better when you can have best? As Eater’s Helen Rosner noted a while ago, “A person who won’t eat his steak any doneness but well is a person who won’t entertain the notion that there could be a better way.” By charring his meat beyond recognition, such that one tastes not the protein but the power of the heat that burnt it, Trump is building yet another wall twixt himself and the phenomenal world.
Bringing the image of a man disdainful of the nature of things into even clearer focus, Trump habitually slathers ketchup—that great flavor eradicator—over whatever burnt-out slab of meat he’s consuming. When he ventured to Saudi Arabia to lay hands on a golden orb and sway sword in hand, his accommodating hosts made sure he was served halal steak and ketchup on hand. Shortly afterwards Trump sold $110 billion dollars of weapons to the Saudi government.
As for pizza, Trump’s other claim to the middle class, he eats it crust-first. Like a crazy person.
The sidewalk in front of Estela in Manhattan’s Soho is dotted with the same black rash of spat out bubble gum as it was back in 2014. The summer heat still slumps the shoulders and pulls from Botanica, the bar below, the smell of stale beer and industrial cleaning product. But the restaurant, chef Ignacio Mattos and Thomas Carter’s bolt-hole glory boite, is much changed in three years. It is now part of the city’s fine dining firmament and its descendents—Cafe Altro Paradiso and Flora—as numerous as stars in the city’s night sky. [Yeah, that’s only two but light pollution in the city is terrible.]
One reason, though not the prime reason for Estela’s success, can be traced back to the night of September 24th, 2014 when President Barack Obama took Michelle Obama there for date night. The Obamas nestled into a circular table in the back of the small second floor space while a half dozen bulky Secret Service men did their best to blend in. The Obamas, who had hitherto established their dining bona fides by visiting Blue Hill in Greenwich Village and minibar in Washington D.C., dined on endives and croquettes. They stayed for hours.
The effect, Thomas Carter says now, “was like 50 Best,” the prestigious ranking of the world’s top restaurants. “It was super impactful, not just personally and for the staff,” he says, “but he really helped to put us on the map.” Even now, Estela, the sixty-sixth best restaurant in the world, is frequently given the prefix, “Obama-approved.” The power of that benediction is so strong that it is often affixed to other similarly luminous bodies the Obama’s frequent such as Upland, Carbone, Gramercy Tavern and ABC Kitchen. That Obama, who gave so many fucks about everything from climate change and healthcare to bowing before a kid in the oval office so he could touch his hair, also cared about restaurants immediately anointed the whole shebang with an importance hitherto lacking. Pleasure, it turns out, wasn't trifling. This meeting of A1-above-the-fold with the metier of the Dining section ennobled not just the particular restaurants Obama visited but the industry in general. In many ways, Obama wasn’t just the commander-in-chief, he was the critic-in-chief too.
Since it is physically painful to type the words "Donald Trump" and "leader" in the same sentence, it might come as no shock that he is in no ways a leader for American eating habits. To be fair, not every sitting President must be a gourmet like Obama, leading the nation to watercress and radicchio. If he could but govern, dayeinu. If he could not collude, dayeinu. Hell, if he could not Tweet, dayeinu. However, Trump’s eating habits are much more than a matter of taste.
So much of the work so many people do in the fields of agriculture and labor, health care and education, nutrition and dining is concerned with making high-quality and healthful food broadly available, that Trump’s junk food identity politics isn’t just a matter of culture but of life and death. A population that defines itself by cheeseburgers and pizza is a dying unhealthy people. Here again is Trump using Americans like a credit card. Their health is a debt he’ll pay later or just shirk off in bankruptcy.
His disdain for fine and interesting dining is part of his overall disinterest in the world beyond his shiny but empty gold-and-marble mind.
Worse, not only does vociferously advocate for eating shit, but his policies, like a recent end to posting calorie counts, and his personnel—remember when he tried to make Carl Jr.’s demonic CEO Andy Puzder, the head of the Labor Department—are designed to turn America into one giant drive thru window, complete with an underpaid, unprotected workforce. Many of the strides, uneven for sure, towards making the restaurant industry more equitable—whether by abolishing tipping or providing health insurance—will no doubt be walked back. Also, who is going to pay $15 an hour during a nuclear holocaust?
To chronicle every way in which Donald Trump sucks eggs as compared to Barack Obama is not productive; it’s mostly just enraging. His inferiority is felt at home and abroad, in workplaces, in prisons and in schools and in courts and in churches and in dining rooms and in kitchens. His disdain for fine and interesting dining is part of his overall disinterest in the world beyond his shiny but empty gold-and-marble mind. Every meal Obama ate out made America great again. Every meal Trump eats anywhere gives the Statue of Liberty indigestion. He hasn’t just let Obama’s cultural momentum slow down. He’s slammed on the brakes, thrown it in reverse and squealed to the sunset in retrograde.
Restaurateurs are not ones, generally, to turn away business. But when asked if he would welcome the current President of the United States of America into his restaurant, Thomas Carter takes a long pause. Then he says, “I plead the fifth.” It’s a phrase to which we will all soon, I suspect, become accustomed.