It lurks in the Produce Department, sneaky-silent, all tied up in a bunch, seemingly minding its own business even as it threatens to change the course of the 2008 presidential election. It is arugula. Some call it rocket, or roquette. It's a trendy salad ingredient, often viewed as a type of lettuce, though the government lists it as an herb.
Without question, it is the most politically explosive of the leafy greens.
At the loftiest levels of American politics, there are operatives who are eager to play the arugula card. When Barack Obama's campaign skewered John McCain for forgetting how many houses he owns, the McCain camp responded by dropping the a-word on him - twice.
First, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers sent out an e-mail describing Obama as "a guy who worries about the price of arugula." Later in the day, Rogers said in an interview, "In terms of who's an elitist, I think people have made a judgment that John McCain is not an arugula-eating, pointy-headed-professor type."
Obama's arugula problem dates to last summer, to an offhand remark in Iowa. He was saying that farmers could make good money planting specialty crops rather than just corn and soybeans. He asked his audience if anyone had seen the price of arugula lately at Whole Foods. Pundits howled: Arugula! Whole Foods! As if the mooing masses of Iowans had ever heard of such a thing or such a place!
The arugula controversy raises an obvious question: When did arugula become the undisputed symbol of elitist food? Can a politician seeking to connect with ordinary people safely eat anything other than iceberg?
"There's nothing wrong with eating arugula," argues May Bogdanovic, owner of Arucola, an Italian restaurant in Washington. "It's one of the healthier leaf lettuces. ... If Obama is worried about the price of arugula, then obviously he has a healthier diet than McCain."
Robert Rossi, co-owner of Field Fresh Farms, a major grower of arugula in Watsonville, Calif., also defends Obama against the elitist-salad-eater slur.
"I think he has very good taste buds. And I'm a Republican," Rossi says.