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Outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, lines stretched for...
Waiting in line to vote at Barclays Center
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What to Eat on Election Day in NYC

Eater critic Robert Sietsema considers the barbecue, booze, and dollar slices powering America’s polls

Food and drink preferences are a part of every aspect of American life — eating nachos and drinking beer while watching football games, for example, or munching popcorn in a movie theater. Elections are no exception, and food will be just one thing on everyone’s mind this year, along with long lines at the polls, election meddling, and the spiraling COVID numbers.

As the country has bumbled forward in the last three centuries, booze and barbecue first predominated, but later we came to prefer fundamental comfort foods like pizza, franks, and mac and cheese around election time. But in the last two decades, as the influence of immigrants has become far more important among popular culinary preferences, voters have come to crave tacos, coconut rice, and dumplings to calm their election fears.

When you’ve decided what to eat as you cast your ballot, or as you contemplate how you’ve already voted, please tweet a picture of your choice with the hashtag #VoteEaterNY.

Around the time of George Washington, it was common for candidates to ply their potential supporters with strong liquor. According to Business Insider, “In 1758, George Washington spent his entire campaign budget — a whopping 50 pounds — on 160 gallons of liquor in order to sway voters on election day.”

While it might be difficult to convince local candidates to buy you a drink these days, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do a shot of something uniquely American like Kentucky bourbon after you’ve waited four or five hours in line to vote. Grab your own bottle, though, and have that shot at home, because if you have it in a bar, you’ll have to buy some food to go with it, as required by the SLA.

A black plastic tray with barbecued ribs, steak, and brisket.
Barbecue has been a popular election food, at least since the early 19th century.

Barbecue has been a tool of political parties to lure supporters since the beginning of our democracy, often involving the spectacle of a whole cow or pig roasted in a pit before a crowd of hungry potential voters.

Writing about the presidential election of 1840 in his article “Into Our Smoky Past,” food journalist and musician Jim Auchmutey observed, “The Whigs used barbecues to their own ends in the presidential election of 1840. They wanted to portray their nominee, William Henry Harrison, as a man of the people, even though he came from a plantation manor in Virginia. His campaign staged enormous barbecues and displayed log cabins to symbolize his supposedly humble background.”

In fact, Auchmutey goes on to say, by 1874 when the grounds of the U.S. Capitol were re-landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect incorporated two prominent groves of trees that were already there; each had been reserved for the mass barbecues of one of the major parties.

Accordingly, it wouldn’t be out of place to get yourself, say, a brisket sandwich or half rack of pork ribs from one of our local barbecues to eat while waiting to vote or even while voting. Imagine the spectacle as you stand in the voting booth, marking your ballot with one hand and waving a rib like an orchestra conductor in the other. Actually, maybe that’s not such a good idea, though eating on the part of poll workers is clearly permitted.

Market Watch reports that voters, as they emerged from the polls in the last presidential election, craved comfort and junk foods the most. And they certainly will this time, too, because voting has become a high-anxiety activity, partly due to the pandemic but also because of the threat of interference in the election from foreign countries. Of ancillary concern is how one should vote, and this time around we have many choices — absentee ballot by mail, absentee ballot dropped in a box, early in-person voting, or voting on the day of the election. And whichever way that’s chosen, voters will wonder if their vote will be counted.

A cheesy slice of pizza on a white paper plate on a wood table.
A slice is always an easy and convenient choice.

Pizza has become a staple of Election Day, sometimes passed out for free along voter lines by organizations such as Pizza to the Polls. Not only is a slice familiar and reassuring, but neighborhood pizzerias are proximate to nearly every polling place and post office in the city. In some locations, funds have been collected to deliver pizza and other foods to exhausted and famished voters.

Among the comfort foods reported by Market Watch, based on statistics by delivery food outfits, DoorDash found that many cities have seen election increases of around 50 percent to 100 percent in tacos and taco bowls, cheesesteaks, and cupcakes, among other comfort food classics. New York City in particular has seen even larger delivery increases, reaching higher than 400 percent in some cases. A recent election evening, for example, showed the largest expansion in orders of chips and salsa, Greek salads, coconut rice, fried chicken sandwiches, and dumplings.

The real question, I suppose, is what comfort food should you choose? A good thick hamburger and a nest of crisp fries would be one answer, but then so would a plate of shrimp egg foo young with brown gravy and rice, or well-done lamb kebabs sprinkled with cumin. Or maybe a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich eaten indulgently in the afternoon rather than at breakfast time.

A cupcake with white icing and a yellow flower in top.
Think about rewarding yourself with a cupcake after waiting in the voting lines.

A 2016 issue of Time magazine did a statistical analysis of data provided by GrubHub on 214 Congressional districts identified as either Democrat or Republican, to see if there were differences in foods preferred in the run-up to elections. The results were surprising. In order of preference, it found the five most “Republican” dishes were sweet-and-sour chicken, cannoli, brownies, egg rolls, and boneless wings. The five most “Democratic” dishes were massaman curry, veggie burgers, summer rolls, guacamole, and pancakes.

And what will I eat as I contemplate my own vote? I'm heading for John's of Bleecker Street to eat a coal-oven pie topped with Italian sausage and black olives.

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