Ted Cruz was hunched over the table, the palms of his hands pressed on a rolling pin. It was Thursday afternoon and he was in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn—1,700 miles from his home of Houston, Texas and 225 miles from Washington, D.C., where he serves in the Senate—for a specific purpose: Cruz, an evangelical Christian conservative, was making matzo.
Anywhere a candidate for president goes in America, it’s understood, they will feign enthusiasm for the local customs and quirks. It’s part of the fabric of our democracy. They’ll try the regional specialty or partake in the hometown ritual—whatever it may be—with a look on their face that says, “I’m a real boy!”
In Wisconsin, they sampled cheese curds and marveled at life-sized cows chiseled out of butter. In New Hampshire, they wore flannel and signed wooden eggs. In Iowa, they ate pork chops on sticks and toured ethanol plants.
With the New York primary scheduled for April 19th and just two of the remaining five candidates for the Republican and Democratic nominations being native New Yorkers, the city is the latest place to find its streets and subways and restaurants flooded with politicians manufacturing Authentic Local Experiences for cutesy photo-ops.
This can sometimes come off as endearing or even charming, but usually it’s just strange.
The candidates are martians in bad suits, trying so hard to seem natural in the most unnatural of circumstances, trying to come off like regular neighborhood folks so generally likable that they can casually have a beer on any barstool in America. Hillary Clinton even tried to pour a beer, on March 29 at the Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse. She filled half the glass with foam.
The Chabad Neshama Center’s “Model Matzah Bakery” was filled with small children on Thursday, and Cruz did his best to seem at ease among the Hasidic community. He cracked a few jokes with the kids—at one point referring to a little girl’s dough, which had a lot of holes, as “hole-y matzo.”
In his life, he said, he had been “privileged to be at many a Seder table.”
He put his matzo in a paper hat and took a bite. He raised his hand to make an OK sign and said, “superb!”
Meanwhile, John Kasich was competitively eating with himself in the Bronx.
On Thursday afternoon, the governor of Ohio was at Mike’s Deli on Arthur Avenue, where he ate everything in sight. Arthur Avenue is what’s left of the Bronx’s Little Italy, the premiere spot in the borough to find good red sauce and imported Culatello, and Kasich was going to town surrounded by meat, cheese, olives, sandwiches and pasta.
He ate “two helpings of spaghetti and part of a huge sandwich,” according to Max Tani of Business Insider. After completing half of the sandwich, he drank red wine and ordered pasta fagioli.
“If I lived here,” he said, “I would be here everyday. Everyday!” At another point, Kasich, who is Czech and Croatian, said, “Mama Mia!”
Not that she’s to blame, but it was Clinton who had set the tone for the day with an adventure among the commoners in the city’s public transportation system.
Thursday morning, Clinton, an Illinois native who served as the Senator from New York from 2001 to 2009, found herself at a subway turnstile in the Bronx, holding a MetroCard—not the first time she’d been in the subway for a photo-op, something all New York politicians—from Ed Koch to George Pataki—have done with varying degrees of success.
Clinton swiped her MetroCard five times before she was able to walk through and board the No. 4 train, frankly a standard New York City subway experience.
“I’m proud to be a New Yorker. We don’t use a token on the subway,” she said—a dig at Bernie Sanders, the Brooklyn-born Vermont Senator and contender for the Democratic nomination, who inaccurately told the editorial of the Daily News that tokens are still used in New York City subways.
“It was my first term,” she said, “when we changed from tokens to the MetroCard.”
One New Yorker was characteristically unimpressed with Clinton’s underground performance: Donald Trump, the frontrunner in the state’s Republican contest. “It’s so bad, it’s so bad,” he said on The Michele McPhee Show on Friday.
“She hasn’t been on the subway in twenty years,” he said, “if she was ever in the subway, and it’s so bad! The picture of her riding around for—it’s called pandering. It’s so bad. Too bad!”
Of course, the pandering displayed by Cruz, Kasich and Clinton on Thursday is nothing new here in New York.
“It was said no politician could be elected in New York without eating a Yonah Schimmel’s knish,” the nephew of the owner of Yonah Schimmel’s Bakery, where Nelson Rockefeller had been photographed eating the potato pastry, told the Associated Press in 1981. And no politician in America can be elected president without eating the knishes equivalent in all key primary states.