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Chinese food, salmon, granola: What our politicians like to eat

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff noshes on Chinese dumplings in Toronto.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

What's your favourite food? It's the simplest of questions, but the answer - or lack thereof - can reveal a lot about a person. After all, as the saying goes, you are what you eat. In an effort to get party leaders to break out of campaign mode and to get acquainted with them more intimately, The Globe posed that question to them.

What gets Stephen Harper salivating? Sara MacIntyre, a press secretary on the Conservative Party campaign tour, says the party leader loves Chinese food (though he has no particular favourite restaurant).

"He also enjoys anything spicy, the hotter the better," Ms. MacIntyre said in an e-mail, noting that at any given time, the Prime Minister has as many as 30 different kinds of hot sauce at home.

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Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is partial to steak-frites and red wine. His preferred restaurant is the old-school French bistro L'Express on Montreal's Rue St-Denis.

Jack Layton's press officer says the NDP leader starts his day with berries and yogurt, sometimes with granola. He's fond of antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice, too.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who steers clear of meat, often orders a big salad and Ocean Wise-approved salmon for lunch at her favourite restaurant, Haro's at the Sidney Pier Hotel on Vancouver Island.

As for Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe? Whatever food he likes to indulge in, he's not saying.

Politicians' culinary preferences may seem like small potatoes when there are bigger fish to fry in this electoral race - the national budget, say, or foreign policy or immigration. Yet in campaigns where all other details are staged and spin-doctored, food choices can provide voters with a glimpse of the more human side of candidates, says Matthew Jacob, co-author of What the Great Ate: A Curious History of Food & Fame. As any chef or home cook can attest, food tells a story about who you are, where you come from, what your values are and how you live.

"Voters are constantly trying to sort through the clutter and sort through the slogans," Mr. Jacob says. "How somebody eats, as basic as that is, can provide helpful clues." Such as whether a candidate can relate to ordinary people.

When U.S. President Barack Obama was running for office in 2008, for example, he made the mistake of suggesting to Iowa farmers that they try growing arugula.

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"The farmers were baffled," Mr. Jacob says. "[They said] 'Arugula? What's that? We grow corn. We grow wheat. Arugula?' It was the kind of statement that did not make Obama seem like he was in sync with farmers in the Midwest."

By contrast, the late U.S. president Ronald Reagan charmed many Americans with his love of jelly beans , as it made him seem more youthful and accessible, Mr. Jacob says. "It made you see the kid inside."

While researching his book, Mr. Jacob discovered that former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney was such a regular patron of New York's Le Cirque restaurant that he had his mail forwarded there for a period of time after he left public office.

"I'm not sure if anybody knew he had such a hankering for high-priced Italian food in Manhattan back when he was in office," Mr. Jacob said. "But that probably wouldn't have played as well."

His book also reveals that Pierre Trudeau, though a knowledgeable diner and oenophile, was helpless in the kitchen - if a meal wasn't provided, the prime minister would eat spaghetti out of a can.

An appetite for artery-clogging fast food can hurt a politician's public image, since voters want a leader to be healthy and able to work at his or her best, says Catherine Graham Bell of Prime Impressions Image Consulting in Kingston. On the other hand, a taste for expensive haute cuisine can rub voters the wrong way, too, as it can be interpreted as ostentatious - a political no-no, especially during times of economic uncertainty.

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Yet breaking bread with the public is essential to winning votes on the campaign trail, so politicians are expected to eat up, regardless of what they're served. A reluctance to dig in can be deadly. During last year's gubernatorial race in California, billionaire candidate Meg Whitman, former chief executive of eBay, was derided for failing to bite heartily into a chili dog, Mr. Jacob says. As The Los Angeles Times pointed out, she cut the dog "into quarters with a plastic knife and took a bite, pinky finger extended" - a move that reinforced her image as being out of touch with the people.

Mr. Harper, for one, is known for eating as if he's at a Super Bowl party in public, partaking in sausages and beer nuts to win the favour of a demographic that enjoys the same foods.

Politicians are all too aware they're being judged by what they eat, which may explain why they are guarded about their preferences. Ms. May's press secretary, Debra Eindiguer, said the Green Party leader's favourite meal is "anything Elizabeth can cook for herself and for friends/dinner parties - eggplant parmesan, spanakopita, or soufflés are top of the list! She loves to cook!"

Though enthusiastic, the response revealed nothing about Ms. May's aversion to meat, and little about the party leader's personality.

Mr. Duceppe's press officer did not provide an answer to repeated requests for the Bloc leader's favourite meal, explaining that Mr. Duceppe was very busy. Reporters following his campaign say he doesn't appear to be a picky eater, as he stops to eat wherever his tour takes him.

But if any of the Canadian politicians have unusual culinary tastes, they'll probably keep those cravings secret, at least until after the election, Mr. Jacob suggests. "Because politics is a world filled with caution, candidates are unlikely to publicize their tastes if they think their tastes are strange or out of whack."

With files from Gloria Galloway, Ryan MacDonald, Les Perreaux and Jane Taber.

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