Everybody loves Italian food, but in this land of two Americas, there's a huge gulf in how we perceive it.
If you're liberal, you probably see pasta, pizza, focaccia and pesto as part of your everyday arsenal of food choices.
But if you're conservative, eating angel hair pasta with pesto is a walk on the wild side -- almost like admitting you once had a gay fantasy.
It took a summer-long poll from hunch.com to explain something about San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood I had never understood.
The poll, described here, correlated people's political beliefs with the foods they like. Some of the results are intuitive: Is anyone surprised that liberals like veggies on their pizza while conservatives want meat? (I like anchovies, which fits as I discovered on hunch.com that I really should be a libertarian.)
Asked their favorite "cuisine," liberals named Chinese, Japanese and Thai. Conservatives said Italian.
Suddenly I understood why in North Beach vendors sell t-shirts with giant letters proclaiming that the wearer has eaten Italian food, making various puns about the experience (i.e., "Don't kiss me, I just ate Italian food"). For years, I was bewildered by these (as I was by most North Beach restaurants). Who takes a vacation to San Francisco to eat indifferently prepared spaghetti swimming in a bowl of red sauce, then buys a tote bag to brag about it back home? Don't they sell pizza in Peoria?
Now I understand. To liberals, Italian food is so commonplace that it's not even a separate cuisine anymore. But for people who are truly conservative -- Billy Graham followers, not Mitt Romney economic Republicans or Sarah Palin dummies -- anything beyond meat and potatoes really is exotic.
This will not be news to those of you with conservative family members. You might want to watch their diet for them: turns out 63% of conservatives eat fast food a few times a week, and 30% eat fresh fruit less than once a week.
It got me to wondering about the way conservatives think about food. I confess that while I have Republican and Democrat friends, I have maintained no friendships with true conservatives; they live in a different world from me. So I have to look at the hunch.com poll for guidance.
Here's a theory, and it is just that. True conservatives believe we should deny the urges of the body, particularly urges to pursue pleasure. Conservatives believe strongly in shame, and think its absence is what's wrong with this country.
Spending too much time, effort or money on food would be shameful. Hence the popularity of convenience foods.
But it goes deeper than that. To make a dish like green curry, with its complex blend of flavors, is creating temptation. Meat loaf, on the other hand, is fulfilling. It does the job food is required to do, without excessive ornamentation that could arouse impure thoughts of greed and gluttony.
This would explain another philosophical question I've always had: why do people look so much larger at conservative events than liberal events, given that conservatives are aware that gluttony is a deadly sin? It's not gluttony, it's purely diet -- and the diet stems from attempting to avoid foods that would stimulate gluttony.
What makes this interesting is that while liberals are a messy group who never agree on anything (including that statement), true conservatives tend to present a very united front.
That means that smarter minds than mine have already considered these philosophical questions, while in the employ of Kraft and ConAgra and McDonald's. From now on, I'm going to look at food advertisements differently, thanks to this poll. There's a natural tension -- ad agency people are definitely not social conservatives (remember, I'm not talking about Republican vs. Democrat here), but if they do the best for their client, they'll reach out to the social conservatives who buy macaroni and cheese in a box, or eat Big Macs four times a week.
Deep thoughts for a Thanksgiving weekend. I'll conclude by saying, wow, Americans of all belief sets have lousy taste in cheese. Conservatives like Velveeta -- that's not even cheese -- or Colby, which I believe is half cheese, half orange wax. Liberals aren't any better: brie? That's such a cliche, it's like naming as your favorite wine the one you were served on an airplane last week. The cheese industry has a lot of work to do in this country on both sides of the great divide.