DES MOINES, Iowa — Presidential contenders will stampede to the Iowa State Fair this week, where they will be plied with deep-fried Oreos, the beef sundae and the legendary pork chop tent, where eating a pork chop on a stick is a rite of passage for those looking to reach 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
That could prove to be a bit of pickle for Sen. Cory A. Booker, who swore off meat years ago.
“What is the poor guy to do?” laughed Jan Bauer, a longtime Democratic National Committee member from Iowa. “He is going to have to pack a lunch, I think.”
Mr. Booker went vegetarian in the 1990s and became a vegan — which generally means swearing off all animal-derived products, including dairy and eggs — in 2014.
That likely means that the deep-fried Snickers bar, with its milk chocolate, is also out of bounds. And that goes double for the chocolate-covered bacon.
Ms. Bauer said she is a big fan of Mr. Booker’s but acknowledged his time at the fair may be a struggle.
“What are we going to do here? Maybe he will find a smoothie stand somewhere along the way.”
Iowa’s fair is an institution, making bucket lists everywhere. It even has earned a spot in the book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”
It draws about 100,000 people a day, most of them Iowans — the very same people who, come February, will kick off the 2020 presidential primary season with caucuses. The opportunity is just too enticing for politicians.
More than 20 Democratic presidential contenders plan to attend, with a stop at the Soapbox, an open-air forum where they can deliver their messages straight to voters, who feel free to roar their approval or dissent.
Former Gov. Bill Weld of Massachusetts, who is challenging President Trump for the Republican Party’s nomination, also is slated to speak.
But it’s strolling the fairgrounds where they will do most of their retail politicking, pressing the flesh and chowing down as they try to relate to the common people whose votes they are asking for.
That makes the food important, and the pork tent might be the ultimate test. Candidates are invited to flip a few chops on the grill while smiling for the cameras and dispensing wisdom, political or culinary.
There are more than 6,000 hog farms in Iowa, accounting for more than one-third of the country’s production. Nearly 1 in 12 working Iowans have a job tied in some way to the pork industry, and politicians pay heed. Every president since Ronald Reagan has visited the state fair pork tent during the campaign or while in office, according to the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
That includes Mr. Trump, who made his 2015 visit to the fair in his private helicopter and used it to give some lucky children a ride. Barack Obama in 2007 drove bumper cars with his daughters and in 2012 slugged down a beer and ate a pork chop at the fair.
Yet the fair can have its pitfalls.
Mitt Romney, a Republican Party candidate in 2007, is remembered for manning the pork grill, accidentally dropping a chop and then tossing it back onto the grill, citing the “five-second rule.” He was jeered for the move.
David Yepsen, who for more than 30 years covered Iowa politics for the Des Moines Register, recalled how he came face-to-face with Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, at the fair one year.
“I had a mouthful of pork chop and mumbled to him and said, ‘This is pretty good,’ ” Mr. Yepsen said. “He laughed and smiled at it and said, ‘I don’t think my rabbi would approve.’ “
Mr. Yepsen said Mr. Booker and other less-carnivorous candidates could learn from Mr. Lieberman, who visited the pork tent and flipped some chops without breaking with Jewish teachings.
“It is one thing to be vegan,” he said of Mr. Booker. “It would be another thing to come out eating fake meat. The industry would be ticked off.”
Another Yepsen pro tip: Avoid public consumption of a corn dog. It is not a good look. Just ask former Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
Health-conscious eaters will find some options — at least by state fair standards. The “Iowa State Fair Healthy Food Choices” list includes anything under 600 calories, such as baked potatoes, corn on the cob, caramel apple slices and a dried fruit log.
There is also a caprese salad on a stick.
“As long as Sen. Booker doesn’t try to tell others how to eat, we respect his choice,” said Dal Grooms, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
She suggested he could try the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers stand or some honey lemonade from the Iowa Honey Producers Association. “Insects are a vegan option, right?” she joked.
The Booker campaign did not respond to a request seeking his eating plans for the fair.
Dennis J. Kucinich, a longtime vegan and former congressman who ran for president in 2004 and 2008, said there are ways Mr. Booker can succeed without going to the dietary dark side.
“I’d advise Sen. Booker not to change his diet to curry votes, but to enhance Iowa farmers’ appetite for his campaign by supporting parity, protection of water supplies, and monetizing the role of farmers in regenerate agriculture — enlisting farmers on a massive scale to help bend the atmospheric carbon concentration curve downward,” Mr. Kucinich said in a text message. “Can’t blame the vegans for the disintegration of the family farm and the current state of [the] US agricultural economy.”
“Just sayin,’ ” he said.
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