A number of years ago, I wrote a review of Poke Bowl in downtown Fargo. Decent food, fresh, inexpensive and locally owned. And it wasn’t part of a national chain which, based on our Midwestern fondness for predictable franchise meals, made it unique.

I thought that was worth mentioning. I said that the growth of locally owned and operated diners was a positive trend for “a community that used to look only to the possibility of a Cracker Barrel to round out our portfolio of dining opportunities.” It was only one sentence.

It’s not unusual for people to disagree with a review, but it is unusual to take issue with an incidental comment — and that comment prompted several replies calling the review “snooty,” “snobbish” and “elitist.”

It’s hard for me to think of Poke Bowl as elitist. But these days, everything is political, and I figure that there must be a story there that I just didn’t know.

One of the emails was pretty certain I had “voted for crooked Hillary.” If I remember correctly, I rather liked the tuna, but that never really struck me as a political act.

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In 2019, President Donald Trump invited the North Dakota State University Bison football team to dinner. "We could've had chefs but we're having fast food. I know you people very well." He's talking about we common fast-food folk here in the Dakotas. To be fair, people do like Chick-fil-A. But you also can get a wagyu beef burger in North Dakota, and it's hard to believe that the team would have turned that down. Eric Daeuber / The Forum
In 2019, President Donald Trump invited the North Dakota State University Bison football team to dinner. "We could've had chefs but we're having fast food. I know you people very well." He's talking about we common fast-food folk here in the Dakotas. To be fair, people do like Chick-fil-A. But you also can get a wagyu beef burger in North Dakota, and it's hard to believe that the team would have turned that down. Eric Daeuber / The Forum

As it turns out, it was a political act. There have been a lot of studies done about the politics of food. Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report noted that, in the 2016 election, Donald Trump won 76% of counties with a Cracker Barrel restaurant, but only 22% of counties with a Whole Foods Market. I had no idea.

At first, this may seem like little more than a divide between lovers of nostalgia and lovers of the organic. But nostalgic for what? And organic why?

When you start asking questions like these, you end up going down a Welsh rabbit hole full of twists and turns and complications. Bubble tea turns out to be left over from British colonists who made palatable the Chinese tea in Hong Kong by adding sugar and milk. Fry bread, ever present at powwows, is food made necessary when treaty obligations were held back by unscrupulous government agents and flour was all a family had to eat.

Even the cheesy open-faced Welsh rabbit changed its name to Welsh rarebit because it contains no rabbit, something the Welsh, apparently, hadn’t noticed. The Welsh, although not known for being an oppressed group of people, but also not thought of in the 18th century as particularly bright, may well have been ridiculed for being unaware of the missing ingredient. Then they changed “rabbit” to “rarebit” to cover up the insult.

iStock / Special to The Forum
iStock / Special to The Forum

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We have used food to identify, discriminate and categorize people for a long time. People may worship with each other once or twice a week, and they may engage in spirited conversation, from time to time, about the outcome of living in a politically divided nation.

Once in a while, they will organize around an issue that is important to them to protest. They may even vote periodically. But people, without exception, all eat. And we do with greater regularity than any other symbolic act.

It accompanies most every significant event in our lives. You can thank Donald Trump or Joe Biden for your COVID vaccine and, at the same time, discount the contribution of the other. But everyone will sit down at the table with those they love and eat something together like we all have been doing for thousands of years.

During the Democratic race for 2020 presidential candidate, traditionalists like Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden had staff who frequented Panera Bread (Panera's Autumn Squash Soup is seen here in October 2013). Bernie Sanders spent his dime at Domino's Pizza. Eric Daeuber / The Forum
During the Democratic race for 2020 presidential candidate, traditionalists like Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden had staff who frequented Panera Bread (Panera's Autumn Squash Soup is seen here in October 2013). Bernie Sanders spent his dime at Domino's Pizza. Eric Daeuber / The Forum

Perhaps it will be the all-American french fry or ice cream or macaroni and cheese, all staples brought back from France — not by the Foodie-in-Chief, Thomas Jefferson, as many think, but by his chef, James Hemings, whom Jefferson’s wife inherited along with Hemings’ family, all slaves.

Every forkful tells a story because it’s unlikely that whatever you are eating is without a history. That you’re using a fork rather than your fingers is, itself, part of the story. Eating may be the most political thing you do on any given day. And it may well be that someone at the other side of the restaurant recognizes it and, perhaps, it may suggest a kind of kinship. Or it might cause a little pain.

I never should have made that crack about Cracker Barrel (see? I did it again). I have, in fact, eaten at a Cracker Barrel, where $60 feeds a family of four. And it was OK.

But I never got past the lobby of the Democratic-leaning Ruth Chris Steak House, where $60 gets you a place to sit down, a single steak on an otherwise empty plate, and nothing left for a tip.

I don’t know what that means, but it sort of sounds like a metaphor for something.

Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at food@daeuber.com.