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Salad Days

Supermarket politics have always posed perilous risks for presidential candidates. Sure, voters want a candidate with a firm hand on foreign policy and a keen grasp of economics. But, in electoral contests, "you are what you eat" trumps all. In the last presidential election, the Republicans got John Kerry choked up on Chablis. Before that, George H.W. Bush, while visiting the National Grocers Association convention during his 1992 reelection bid, got caught in the rays of barcode scanners. "This is for checking out?" he asked, straight-faced. The editors at The Onion would have coveted the headline in next day's New York Times: BUSH ENCOUNTERS THE SUPERMARKET, AMAZED.

With grocery-store shelves lined with potential p.r. blunders, it's no surprise that Barack Obama's elitism problem looks a lot like, well, arugula. It all started back in July 2007, when he asked a group of farmers in Adel, Iowa, "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" (To most Americans, Whole Foods might better be called "Whole Paycheck," as one of my friends sniffs.) Then, in May, Obama told supporters at a rally in Roseburg, Oregon, that Americans might not be able to keep eating as much as we'd like. Conservative bloggers were outraged: first salad snobbery, now a diet that the skinny guy would mandate from the Oval Office?

Throughout the campaign, many have looked to Obama's neighborhood, the Hyde Park section of Chicago, as the wellspring for his arugula-attuned taste. At various turns, Obama's hometown has been depicted as a lefty enclave like Cambridge or Berkeley, where University of Chicago professors, upper- middle-class black professionals, and aging radicals like Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, get along swimmingly while shopping for environmentally conscious groceries at the Hyde Park co-op. In May, the Times ran a front-page piece about Obama's neighborhood, declaring, "For Mr. Obama, who was born in Hawaii to a white Kansan mother and an African father and who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, it was a perfect fit." And, last month, The Weekly Standard devoted 4,000 words to a cover story on the neighborhood that took note of Hyde Park's "alarmingly high number of men wandering about looking like NPR announcers."

When I visited Hyde Park in June, the big scandal that had residents buzzing was the demise of the 76-year-old Hyde Park food co-op, which shuttered its doors this winter. At its closing, it had more than 20,000 members, making it the largest cooperative in the country, though members were not required to staff the store. The ultimate collapse had begun in 2000, when the co-op, seeking to prevent a rival supermarket from moving onto its turf, expanded to a second location. The real-estate deal backfired and plunged the co-op into debt. And, when the University of Chicago offered to bail the co-op out--hoping to turn the space into a gourmet supermarket--all hell broke loose.

On the left, the Hyde Park Herald adopted the view of longtime co-op shoppers and residents who harbor angry memories of the university's strong-arm development projects. They railed that the yuppie academics and their capitalist collaborators had cooked up a campaign to dupe the community into selling out. Their anti-corporate attitude was at least in part a by-product of the university's efforts during the 1950s to push back the slums encroaching from the south and west. The university demolished slums under the guise of "urban renewal" and expelled many of the area's independent merchants, jazz bars, and restaurants that had catered to the surrounding black communities. With its isolated location and population of cash-strapped grad students, Hyde Park failed to recruit modern chain stores to replace them, leaving the main shopping thoroughfare along 53rd Street a jangle of abandoned storefronts, a dollar store, and a check-cashing shop. "The University wanted the Hyde Park Co-op grocery gone--seventy-five years of neighborhood history and the feelings of the thousands of Hyde Park families not withstanding," a Herald editorial trilled last December.

But the co-op also had detractors that included, not surprisingly, professors and the wealthy North Side professionals who increasingly settled in Hyde Park to send their children to the prestigious and private Laboratory School, where the Obama children go. To them, there was little sentimental value to the co-op, which they criticized as overpriced and short on selection. "Whenever I went to the co-op, my view was this thing is real expensive, the food isn't that good, there's hardly any selection," Obama's economic adviser and newly minted Hyde Park resident, Austan Goolsbee, told me. "I know some people are upset, but, truly, for a lot of people, this is a great gettin'-up day for Hyde Park!" The Chicago Maroon, an independent student newspaper, pushed for the co-op to get lost. "The Co-Op was a terrible store. It had been poorly run for nearly a decade; of course it should close," one columnist wrote in January. My cousin, a grad student at the University, told me he and his friends preferred to skip the co-op and drive to the Trader Joe's on the north side, about 20 minutes away.

Hippie co-opers? Yuppie snobs? Obama can hardly afford to be in the company of either group. Still, it's probably the case that, from a purely calculated electoral point of view, the only thing worse than arugula is socialist arugula. And, in that, Obama has caught a lucky break: This winter, Treasure Island, a popular Chicago grocery chain, moved into the co-op's former location. Then again, the sign on the storefront heralds the store's arrival in bold block lettering: AMERICA'S MOST EUROPEAN SUPERMARKET.

Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

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By Gabriel Sherman