Suffrage Pie, Honest Watergate Salad, and (Im)Peach-Mint Crumb Cake: Food, Recipes, and Humor as Political Commentary

An NBC news correspondent sparked debate when he tweeted a photograph of a dessert served at the Library of Congress cafeteria on October 3, 2019. The controversial baked good? “Peach Mint Crumb Cake.” The food pun mixed up in this recipe quickly became apparent as Twitter users tagged President Trump and declared “(Im)Peach-Mint” their favorite flavor this fall. This tweet—which received almost 9,000 likes and 2,600 retweets, while garnering press coverage from NPR and Fox News—owes much of its popularity to the recently-announced House impeachment inquiry into President Trump. The range of reactions to the “Peach-Mint” tweet—from amusement and delight to frustration and the immediate withdrawal of the cake from the buffet line—reflect a much longer history of using food to mock political figures.

Ken Dilanian, “A source passes this along,” Twitter, photo, October 3, 2019, https://twitter.com/KenDilanianNBC/status/1179802885749653504.

More than a recent blip on Twitter, #peachmint jokes began with a 2017 meme of U.S. representative Maxine Waters (D-CA). As an early and outspoken critic of President Trump, Waters refused to attend his inauguration and called for his impeachment soon after he assumed office. Waters’s assertive style quickly transformed her into a viral hero for many millennials on the left—who have applauded and celebrated “Auntie Maxine” through tweets, memes, and cartoons. The most prominent and enduring memes—still widely circulated online two years later—turn Waters’s calls for impeachment into a food pun. The text, imposed over pictures of Waters, asks “Favorite ice cream flavor? Peach mint.” 

Karee (@anhavana), “Maxine Waters definitely,” Twitter, photo, September 29, 2917, https://twitter.com/anhavana/status/1178343105226919937.

Indeed, #peachmint as shorthand for the impeachment of Trump has taken on an online life of its own—with anti-Trump Twitter users tagging genuine peach-mint recipes with #impeachtrump or drawing parallels between Trump and Nixon, and pro-Trump Twitter users creating memes mocking Waters (often tapping into racist imagery of black women). Rumors also circulated online that Vermont-based ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s planned to release an “ImPeachMint” flavor to protest the results of the election. Ben and Jerry’s often openly showcases their left-of-center politics—naming ice cream flavors in support of same-sex marriage and voting access laws, and releasing an open letter urging then President-elect Trump to share their values centered on an equitable and just world. Despite Ben and Jerry’s liberal politics (and sense of humor in designing and naming their flavors), tales of “ImPreachMint” ice cream proved false

John Lundlin, “Another fun image,” Twitter, photo, October 4, 2019, https://twitter.com/johnlundin/status/1180112541084721152.

Although social media enables these political food puns to go viral, they are rooted in a long tradition of journalists, activists, and average citizens combining food and humor to poke fun at political opponents. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, female authors of community cookbooks began expressing their political views by naming dishes after politicians they respected and supported. This combination of food and politics accelerated in the twentieth century as activists and politicians embraced cookbooks as campaign tools. From within this tradition, two cookbooks standout alongside #peachmint for their combination of food, humor, and political commentary.

The Watergate Cookbook and an Honest “Watergate Salad”

In the spring of 1973, newspapers around the country reprinted an article from the Washington Post’s Tom Donnelly who conspiratorially revealed that he had gotten his hands on the “behind-the-scenes sensation of New York publishing circles.” What was the mysterious book purportedly capturing the attention of publishers and socialites alike? The Watergate Cookbook. Although he only held it in his hands for a few brief moments, Donnelly promised that “I didn’t bug any rooms or loot any secret funds in order to get a peek at ‘The Watergate Cookbook.’ I came by it honestly. Honest.”

Tom Donnelly, “White House chefs don’t use ‘The Watergate Cookbook,’” Bennington Banner, July 19, 1973, 5. 

Who authored this cookbook? What recipes lay between its mysterious covers? Although he could not positively identify an author, Donnelly knew it was “written by persons who are deep in the soup and figure they could use the royalties if (a) they are hauled to court and obliged to hire the nation’s wiliest and most expensive lawyers or (b) don’t get charged with anything specific but go down with the sinkable types in the administration.” Proving the clandestine and morally dubious nature of the cookbook, the author highlighted a “Thick Dark Sauce” as a versatile recipe because it “can be used to mask almost any contretemps, dilemmas or concoction.” Recipes throughout the article continued to speak to the cookbook author’s underlying motives and actions: “The appetizers section is headed by ‘Clam-up Canapes’ and ‘Capers Galore,’ and in the elaborate ‘Hot Breads’ chapter I noted ‘Laundered Bread,’ ‘Secret Bread,’ ‘Stashed Bread,’ and ‘Hush Money Puppies.’”

Donnelly’s dramatic encounter with this clandestine cookbook appears entirely fictional—a device for the journalist to satirize the Nixon administration. The timing of Donnelley’s article is also revealing. On June 17, 1972, police arrested five men for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee housed in the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC. Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein began connecting the break-in to other crimes committed in support of the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon. Tom Donnelly’s article—clearly mocking the Nixon administration’s denial of involvement in the Watergate burglary—went to press the same month that the American public tuned their televisions to special programing from the Public Broadcasting Service. A parade of witnesses and material evidence appeared before the Senate’s Selection Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to investigate the break-in and possible subsequent cover-ups of criminal activity. Within the month, 97% of Americans knew of the Watergate scandal. 

“Favorite recipes,” The Salina Journal, February 24, 1977, 8.

The Watergate scandal quickly spread through news media and popular culture into the culinary scene; there, Donnelley’s fictionalized Watergate recipes became a reality. That year, two actual cookbooks combined food with political commentary on the Nixon administration: The Watergate Cookbook (or Who’s in the Soup?) and The Watergate Cookbook. The latter not only opened with a reprint of Donnelley’s article, but also created dozens of recipes based on the titles he concocted—from “Puree of Scoundrel” to “Watergate Vichyoisse” that began with “Take a bunch of leaks…” Newspapers and magazines around the country reprinted recipes for “Watergate Salad,” which called for crushed pineapple, marshmallows, whipped topping, and walnuts suspended in pistachio pudding. Some variations of the recipe joked that the bright green pudding effectively “covered up” and hid the nuts from unsuspecting diners. This political joke proved so popular that Kraft changed the official name of this dish from “Pistachio Pineapple Salad” to “Watergate Salad” on their boxes of pistachio pudding mix. And newspapers—even years after Nixon’s resignation—continued to mock political corruption via a molded salad. A very short entry in a 1977 California newspaper joked, “Everyone was anxious to try some of Geneva Spitz’s creamy molded salad at the recent Chula Vista Eastern Star social luncheon. The salad? A ‘Watergate Salad’–the ingredients are secret.”[1]

“Everyone was anxious,” Chula Vista Star News, August 4, 1977, 21.

A Slice of Suffrage Pie

Recipes and food humor have also functioned as important political tools for those lacking formal power and equal rights—as seen in cookbooks published by the women’s suffrage movement. Between the 1880s and the 1910s, suffragists around the country authored more than a dozen cookbooks and published thousands of recipes in newspapers. This swell of suffrage culinary instruction emerged from a wave of community cookbooks that women’s organizations compiled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as one of the most profitable forms of female charity work. As many scholars have argued, cookbooks served as mediums where women both reinscribed and resisted gender norms—upholding cooking as “woman’s work” while also insisting that this work mattered. Suffragists similarly created cookbooks to share recipes, raise money, and advance their political arguments.

Editor Hattie A. Burr described the first suffrage cookbook—titled The Woman Suffrage Cook Book (published in 1886 and reprinted in 1890)—as fulfilling an “important mission.” In addition to serving as a “practical, reliable authority on cookery, housekeeping, and care of the sick,” Burr intended the text be “an advocate for the elevation and enfranchisement of woman.” The Woman’s Journal, a suffragist newspaper, praised such cookery texts for placing suffrage material in the hands of “those women who think they have ‘all the rights they want,’” and “will read a cook-book when she will not read anything else.”[2] Newspapers similarly applauded those “wise sisters” for giving the suffrage cause a “mighty impetus” by waging a “skilful [sic] assault” on the “unyielding will of legislators or ordinary voters” through a “conquest by cook-book.” With humor and apparent sincerity, a reporter imagined politicians converted with a celery salad, lawmakers seized with a “persuasive dish,” and anti-suffragists overtaken by “vote-compelling refreshments.”[3]

Mrs. L. O. Kleber, The Suffrage Cook Book (Pittsburgh: Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania, 1915). 

Tired of antisuffrage claims that described women’s rights advocates as unsexed women who abandoned their homes, many suffrage cooking instructions embraced overtly political tones in the early twentieth century. Many of these domestic advice books and articles adopted a tone that struck a balance between rescuing the reputation of the suffrage movement and striking out at its opponents. The Suffrage Cook Book, published in 1915 and edited by Mrs. L. O. Kleber, epitomized this approach. Endorsed by the Woman’s Journalas “in itself an argument for the cause,” the cookbook attracted praise because it highlighted prominent contributors. In fact, the Woman’s Journal argued that Kleber’s cookbook “ought to silence forever the slander that women who want to vote do not know how to cook.”[4] The popular press also took notice of specific dishes signed by their suffragist creators. The New York Tribune, for instance, observed, “There is scarcely a suffragist of note in the country who isn’t represented in this pretty blue bound book.” The article pointed to the “fine breads” that were the “proudest achievement” of suffragist Medill McCormick and the “pain d’oeufs” that suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt made, “her friends say, with all the skill with which she delivers a suffrage speech.”[5]

C. Hobson, “Once I Get My Liberty,” postcard, 1910.

Along with building up the domestic reputation of suffragists through traditional recipes, The Suffrage Cook Book interspersed memorable quotes, short political essays, and joke recipes. The brief essays, typically authored by prominent individuals, did not shy away from sensitive political issues: the president of the Women’s Peace Conference wrote that “War Not Only Kills Bodies But Ideals,” another author suggested restricting the vote among “ignorant, worthless and unfit men,” and governors of western states testified that women improved local communities with their state-wide voting rights. (Suffragist Anna Howard Shaw also pushed against gender norms by declaring her favorite recipe a set of instructions on how to properly drive a nail.) 

The Suffrage Cook Book is especially unique among the dozen or so extant suffrage cookbooks for its inclusion of humorous recipes poking fun at opponents. One such recipe described the opposition—antisuffragists or “antis”—as misguided, spiteful, and irrational: 

Anti’s Favorite Hash
(Unless you wear dark glasses you cannot make a success of Anti’s Favorite Hash.)
1 lb. truth thoroughly mangled
1 generous handful of injustice 
(Sprinkle over everything in the pan)
1 tumbler acetic acid (well shaken)
A little vitriol will add a delightful tang and a string of nonsense should be dropped in at the last as if by accident.
Stir all together with a sharp knife because some of the tid bits will be tough propositions.

Along with criticizing antisuffragists, the cookbook provided a recipe on how to convert suffrage-wary men by baking the perfect “Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband.” The primary ingredients included civic and social issues women could improve with the vote: 

Pie for Suffragist’s Doubting Husband
1 qt. milk human kindness
8 reasons:
War
White Slavery
Child Labor
8,000,000 Working Women
Bad Roads
Poisonous Water
Impure Food 
Mix the crust with tact and velvet gloves, using no sarcasm, especially with the upper crust. Upper crusts must be handled with extreme care for they quickly sour if manipulated roughly.

Like countless suffrage pamphlets, books, articles, and speeches, these recipes addressed issues central to the debate over woman’s suffrage but did so in a fanciful and humorous way. Suffragists’ recipes imbedded deeply political issues in a form and context that used domesticity and cookery as metaphors for political engagement. Thus, even if equality seemed, as one newspaper put it, a “queer subject for a cook-book,” activists hybridized cookery instructions with political tracts to appeal to a wider audience.[6]

From Suffrage Pie to Watergate Salad to (Im)Peach-Mint Crumb Cake

What is it about food that makes it such an appealing venue for political commentary and mockery? Is it about tapping into shared cultural experiences—of hashes, puddings, and ice creams—to communicate more complex political ideas? Can visual and written descriptions of food draw in readers, viewers, and supporters in a way that other political methods can’t (perhaps proving the way to the heart is through the stomach)? Or do we simply have an irresistible urge to play with our food and create clever puns? 

I can’t wait to see what we dish up next!

Notes

For more on the history of suffrage cookery rhetoric see my article, “‘Kneading Politics’: Cookery and the American Woman Suffrage Movement,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era17, no. 3 (July 2018): 450-474.


[1]“Everyone was anxious,” Chula Vista Star News, August 4, 1977, p 21.

[2]“Gossip and Gleanings,” The Woman’s Journal 23 (February 20, 1892): 61.

[3]“That Woman Suffrage Cook-Book,” The Woman’s Journal 17, no. 43 (October 23, 1886): 339.

[4]“Cook Book Will Silence Enemy,” The Woman’s Journal 46, no. 41 (October 9, 1915): 325.

[5]“Dainty Dishes to Aid Suffrage: Enough Good Things in Equal Franchise Cook Book to Win Ballot: Women Leaders Kitchen Queens,” New York Tribune, September 12, 1915, 6.

[6]H. B. B., “State Suffrage Cook-Book,” The Woman’s Journal 35, no. 33 (August 13, 1904): 260.

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