Michelle Obama is a Harvard–trained lawyer as well as First Lady, and Ann Romney is a multi-millionaire accomplished equine enthusiast who has a dressage horse competing in the 2012 Olympics. So, naturally, while their husbands are competing to be the leader of the free world, the two wives are going head-to-head... in the kitchen, competing in Family Circle's quadrennial Presidential Cookie Bake-Off. How does this seemingly retrograde exercise in culinary democracy work, and should we cheer it or jeer it? Here's what you should know:
How does the bake-off work?
Family Circle publishes the recipes from both contestants, and readers are supposed to bake each type of cookie and vote on their favorite one. This year pits Obama's white and dark chocolate chip cookies against Romney's M&M cookies, and readers vote — where else? — on Family Circle's Facebook page. More than 19 million readers have taste-tested the cookies since the first contest was held 20 years ago.
How did this contest begin?
Blame Hillary Clinton's infamous remark during her husband's 1992 presidential campaign, says Jonathan Chait at New York, that she "could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas" instead of working at a high-powered law firm. Subsequently, Hillary "worked feverishly to rebuild her shrewish image." As part of her domestic rehabilitation, she agreed to take part in this "drearily demeaning ritual," and people ate it up. Now candidates' wives have to participate "on pain of being declared Out of Touch With Middle America."
Is there any correlation between the bake-off and White House winners?
Surprisingly, yes. In four of the five cookie-offs on the books, the winning baker's husband also won the presidency. The only exception was 2008, when Cindy McCain's oatmeal butterscotch cookies beat Obama's lemon-zesty shortbread ones. (McCain was accused of stealing her recipe from Hershey's website, but was not stripped of her cookie crown.) But before that, Clinton's chocolate chip oatmeal cookies beat both Barbara Bush's plain-jane chocolate chip cookies and Elizabeth Dole's pecan rolls, and Laura Bush's Texas Governor's Mansion Cowboy cookies beat both Tipper Gore's gingersnaps and Teresa Heinz Kerry's pumpkin spice cookies.
What do the cookies tell us about the campaigns?
Judging from past winners, Americans like chocolate chips, so both women seem to be playing it safe this year. But while black-and-white chocolate chips does suggest a certain "Ebony and Ivory" racial-harmony vibe, some critics might protest that using white and dark chocolate "smacks of elitism," says Cassie Murdoch at Jezebel. Perhaps Michelle should have gone even safer with "good old-fashioned American milk chocolate." Meanwhile, Romney's M&M's could seen as "a plug for Corporate America's evil influence in our lives," or simple recognition that people love M&M's. The actual recipes may have mattered before Facebook and blogs, says Joe Jervis in Joe My God. Now, the most organized partisans will undoubtedly flood the contest without even baking or tasting the treats. And so, sadly, "the silly season just got sillier."