Last week, New York-based Jewish deli Mile End rolled out an "election-themed" menu for its NoHo outpost. Offerings include "The Nasty Woman," a burger with bacon, cheese and hot peppers; "The Bad Hombre,” a mole chicken burrito with rice, cheese, lettuce and tomato; and "The Move To Canada” poutine, a classic poutine with maple bacon.
Upon first brush, the move seems of a piece with the spate of food and election tie-ins—if anything, it bears asking what took Mile End so long. This election cycle has been awash with a great number of foods that riff on the major party candidates' personas or attach themselves in some way to the election. There’s been Half Moon Bay Company beers with the candidates' faces affixed to their bottles; Trump meatloafs and Clinton "Nuclear Brunch Tacos"; Ava's Cupcakes featuring a vanilla Trump Cupcake encased by a milk chocolate "wall" and a red velvet Hillary Cupcake with a hidden email inside; and Avery Soda flavors that come in “Hillary Hooch” with a "classified" label and a grape "Trump Tonic." A deli in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn has served a Trump sandwich made of “white bread, full of baloney, with Russian dressing, a small pickle, and American cheese, served by a Mexican or Muslim," and what followed was an epidemic of analogous Trump sandwiches across the world that all featured a base of baloney and Russian dressing. There was reportedly an Upstate New York establishment that served a Hillary sandwich made of a "hard roll packed with one full pound of generic, machine-processed bologna."
But look a bit closer and one may notice that Mile End's offerings are consciously non-partisan, if not borderline apolitical. When I spoke to Noah Bernamoff, owner of Mile End, yesterday, he was rather forthright about his decision not to use his business as an extension of his personal political views. Bernamoff is a Canadian man who doesn't hold American citizenship; he is also Jewish. He told me that the concept for an election-themed menu sprung from his and his colleagues' gradual ennui regarding the election cycle—and a growing sense of fear that they'd have much to lose with a Trump presidency, purely by virtue of their personhood. “There is a lot of anti-Semitism revolving around one of the candidates," he told me over the phone yesterday, careful to tiptoe around Trump's name. He seemed rather circumspect about revealing his own politics. "And I can’t help but say, as a pretty Jewish dude with a couple of pretty overtly Jewish establishments, that it doesn’t not make it feel uncomfortable."
Bernamoff, noticing his coworkers grow sullen as they talked about the election, decided to rework the sandwiches already in the deli's canon—a way, he claimed, of offering levity in a horrific situation. “Food is comforting, especially our food," he explained. "There’s a reason why Jewish delis order to people’s homes when people are sitting shiva when someone dies. It’s just tradition. You feel comfortable around food."
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He struck a tone markedly different from the other most recent election and food tie-in in popular memory. At the end of September, Ample Hills, an ice cream company stationed in Brooklyn but shipping its samplings nationwide, offered two flavors in observance of the first presidential debate: 'Madam President' and 'Make America Orange Again'. The former, paired with Hillary Clinton, was cribbed from her own recipe of chili pepper-infused chocolate and chocolate chip cookie chunks, or, as husband and wife owners Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscuna couched it, "a powerful yet comforting combination of sugar and spice and women's rights." The Trump iteration would be starkly buffoonish—“a shamelessly orange marshmallow creamsicle flavor with chocolate brownie bricks (to build a wall)," its description reads. Ample Hills, a company that prides itself on deploying hormone-free milk and cream from grass-fed cows for its products, coated the Trump flavor in synthetic orange dye—they found Trump's campaign so unilaterally pungent that it urged defying their in-house rules.
“Being the Brooklyn brand that we are, we made this decision to not play completely fair with our flavors. And it was met with applause from the vast majority of our Brooklyn fans,” Smith told me over the phone this past weekend. The company tried a similar approach in 2012. The 2012 flavors were comparatively soft-pedaling: "4 More Years," an Obama love letter composed of sweet cream and Ommegang Witte beer ice cream with homemade honeycomb, and Rom Raisin, rich brown sugar ice cream punctured with rum-soaked raisins. ("Taste the 1%," it encourages.) “There’s definitely a little more excitement about these [two flavors],” Smith told me. “Because, this election, there’s a lot more anger and hostility and energy and fear in our constituents.”
Smith believed there wasn't much for Ample Hills to lose in staking out their political viewpoints. New York is an historically blue state, affording Smith certain leeway: He could declare his political leanings through food without repercussion. Sales have been “overwhelming,” Smith claimed to me, with the Hillary flavor selling more readily. (Smith has been fascinated to see that people often feel too guilty to get the Trump flavor even though it’s his own preference, as if these consumers equate buying a synthetically-flavored Trump-parroting ice cream with endorsing his candidacy.) The move was praised for its boldness in decrying Trump's candidacy.
Smith spoke candidly about the vitriol he faced in some corners online, where Ample Hills maintains a national clientele, including the parts of America that gravitate toward a Trump presidency—the kind that would bristle at the aggression of the company's flavors. “We definitely were surprised to see some of the anger and irritation from some die-hard Trump supporters who were upset with some of the way we were mocking him through our flavor,” he told me. “It was taken a little more seriously than we thought.” (Glance at the comments on the initial Facebook post announcing the flavors. "Disgusting. You could have made this fun, but instead you make it obviously partisan," one commenter wrote. "Smart businesses remain publicly neutral when it comes to this type of issue. You'll deserve what you get," another reads.)
Bernamoff seemed more cautious of inviting such overtly political gestures—and the resultant blowback—insisting upon a bifurcation of political sentiment and its expression through food, assuming that his clientele sees food as a salvo. To him, this election cycle has been unrelentingly wearying, necessitating the return food as refuge. To infuse overt political bias into it would go against the very ethos Mile End is predicated on. He fashioned his menu as a counterweight to our perceived growing national pessimism he detected in everyone, divorced from partisan divisions. “I was here in 2008 when Obama was voted in, and I remember the lead-up to that election there was the message of hope,” he told me. “And that’s not at all the message from either side right now.”
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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.
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