NBC News and MSNBC have a secret weapon: Presidential campaign embeds who live and breathe politics on a near daily basis. They are our eyes, ears and cameras on the ground, and since August 2015, they have lived in key primary states or dedicated themselves to covering one particular candidate. All that also means countless campaign stops with candidates at diners, ice cream parlors and coffee shops across the country. Not to mention doing it all while scrambling from event to event, driving for hours, hauling heavy loads of camera equipment and eking by on very little sleep.
That combination tends to make for some interesting eating habits — the famous pork chop on a stick at the Iowa State Fair made a few appearances, for instance — as well as some well-informed opinions about the best regional food America has to offer.
From a few bites of a decadent glazed bacon doughnut to an impromptu meal of cheese and fudge eaten with plastic utensils off the car’s center console, our hardworking embeds shared a peek into the daily life of eating on the campaign trail.
Some clear winners: South Carolina barbecue and New Orleans beignets
With a campaign season that has to date focused much on the Midwest, as well as the South, a few themes quickly rose to the forefront with regards to regional fare. Three out of five embeds independently praised South Carolina’s barbecue.
“I’ve had more barbecue in the last eight months than I care to admit (and certainly more than in my whole pre-embed life combined),” confessed Monica Alba, a California native who has been covering Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Kailani Koenig, who was embedded in New Hampshire before joining coverage of John Kasich’s campaign, also noted that she has eaten a lot of great barbecue throughout the South, from Tennessee to Mississippi to Louisiana. “But Duke’s BBQ in rural Orangeburg, South Carolina, had the best barbecue of them all,” she said. “Even though I was in a giant rush to get to the next event, I knew I might never be back there, so I chose to wait for just a few more minutes to grab a sandwich I could run with to the car. Delicious.”
Embed Jordan Frasier covered Jeb Bush’s campaign and offered a different recommendation when it comes to the best barbecue in South Carolina. Frasier’s favorite spot was Hudson’s Smoke House, “where after a particularly tough day on the trail when a campaign reshuffle had been announced, the mac and cheese and shredded meat was exactly what we needed!”
He added that all of his favorite food came from South Carolina. “I don’t know why more people don’t eat shrimp and grits on a regular basis, because it is heaven in a bowl,” the Washington State native declared.
Ever fair and balanced journalists, the embeds didn’t discriminate when it came to sweets. Both Vitali and Koenig commended New Orleans’ beignets. “Cafe du Monde, obviously,” said Vitali, a Tulane graduate and self-appointed muffuletta ambassador.
For her part, Koenig recalls eating “a giant bag of beignets during one of our nights in New Orleans … didn’t know when I’d be back there, and had to enjoy them while I could,” she explained.
Meanwhile, Alba may have gotten the best of both the sweet and savory worlds in sampling a glazed bacon doughnut in Ohio. “I had three bites — couldn’t handle more,” she said of the “divine” confection.
Firmly in the camp representing those with a sweet tooth, Shaquille Brewster called the fudge on Mackinac Island, Michigan, “amazing.” “Without a doubt, worth it if you are a fudge or ice cream or candy fan,” said Brewster, who hails from Brooklyn, New York. “I did go on a bike ride around the perimeter of the island after, so that helps, right?”
Late nights and fast food
Whether driving, taking a bus or jumping on a flight, the constant travel inevitably results in impromptu meals eaten on the go.
Vitali, who covered the primary race in Wisconsin, noted that cheese was a major part of all her meals there. “Another reporter and I pulled off the highway somewhere between Eau Claire and Milwaukee to buy a block of cheese and some fudge, which we then ate in the most quintessentially campaign trail way possible: with plastic mini-knives, while we drove, using the car center console as a mini table.”
Koenig also recounted “two different nights in Wisconsin where unfortunately, I mostly consumed beer and a lot of cheese curds.” She tries to avoid fast food when possible but admitted that sometimes it’s just unavoidable given their travel schedules.
As evidence of that, fast food made an appearance twice in Vitali’s most notable moments on the trail.
“I have a vivid and rather pathetic memory of landing in Las Vegas after a quick turn of events after the South Carolina primary,” she recalled. “A reporter from CNN and I didn’t even really talk about it: We just plugged ‘nearest In-N-Out’ into Google Maps and then sat there silently attacking our burgers and animal fries. It was well after midnight local time, and we’d been awake since around 8 a.m. ET.”
Vitali, along with embed Vaughn Hillyard, resorted to eating at a Burger King late one night. They ordered at the drive-thru before deciding to eat inside. “Thing was: The employees locked the doors, so we spent a good few minutes hanging on the door of an empty Burger King in the freezing cold of Iowa in winter,” she said. “Finally, they opened up, but it was pretty sad state of affairs.”