You Eat What You're Fed
Exploring food, art, and politics with Lauren Garfinkel of Edible Government
Artist and textile designer Lauren Garfinkel, known on Instagram as @ediblegovernment, has been using food and art to vent her frustrations with presidential politics for a few decades now. From sculpting Donald Trump out of steak and french fries to creating multicourse dinners interpreting the fiascos of the Bush years, Garfinkel’s work focuses on the idea that, “‘you are what you eat’ also means ‘you eat what you are fed,”’ in both a literal and metaphorical sense. She likes to explore the ephemerality between the “newsfeed” (if you will) and the real things we put in our bodies by creating weird and whimsical portraits of her least favorite political figures.
Even before her work focused on politicians, Garfinkel says that “Food and drink and social politics—the two have been a long-running theme. What is fashionable, palatable, and tolerable fascinates me.” In the 2000s, Garfinkel played with preserving McDonald’s meals in resin in a project called Hamburger Curios, which she followed up with Fruitcake Hell, in which, “I did this little scene with these date and cherry devils and a fruitcake hellscape and gingerbread roadkill.” But focusing her art practice on politics didn’t click for Garfinkel until Hurricane Katrina and Bush’s famous line, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
In 2009’s “Feast For Bush,” she explored the tragedies of the Bush years through a sort of interpretive tasting menu including dishes like Dick Cheney’s Birdshot Salad and Condoleeza Rice Balls. At the time, she described the project as “cooking for catharsis,” using food as “a means of revisiting, lamenting and releasing more than a few ghosts, past and present.”
She’s been continuing to revisit those particular ghosts ever since. Her work appeared in a series for Lucky Peach called “Edible Trump,” (which was by prompted her viral portrait of the former president as a circus peanut), and she’s been sculpting prominent people like Mitch McConnell and Marjorie Taylor Greene out of white chocolate, butter, potatoes, and even raw squid ever since.
Garfinkel told me that what she explores, more than anything, in her work is, “Motivation, human behavior, I suppose… I’m trying to tell the story, illustrating it for myself as a record and also for whoever is following me… It’s tough even for me to read this stuff, so making art is a reward for myself… but I also feel like maybe people will look at the story if I entertain them a little.”
She says that using food in her art is “second nature to me now… I think it’s something I have to offer.” Garfinkel is also interested in history, notably presidential diets, and thinks that by interpreting politics through food, she can “paint a fuller picture” of the people involved.
By focusing, albeit in a silly way, on the darkest aspects of political life, Garfinkel manages to humanize even impossibly terrifying figures like Vladimir Putin, and provides a digestible, amusing way to help her followers stay engaged despite dark times. For Garfinkel, not paying attention to how the world is run is an unconscionable action at any time. But with much of the world hurtling toward autocracy, the laissez-faire attitudes she still encounters confound her.
"When half the country has a propaganda network as their sole source of news, of course they have a twisted perspective on reality. And when the rest of the country gets their news from mainstream reporting which refuses to place blame where it belongs (for gas prices, for example), enthusiasm and confidence suffers. Unless we all pay attention and forge ahead mightily with Biden and the Democrats, we will become Russia. The GOP have made clear that they welcome and are actively pursuing fascism.”
To pivot this essay in a different but inevitable direction, I wanted to talk to Garfinkel right now for… obvious reasons. American politics is as divisive as ever, but the response to Putin’s attempt at an 1800s-style land-grab in Ukraine has shown that even when our democracy feels fragile, people around the world are still willing to fight for it.
Vladimir Putin loves eating ice cream. He drinks coffee in the morning and likes to explore local cuisine when he travels. Reminding ourselves that he is just one guy (and perhaps the only guy who truly wants this war) is a good exercise in moments when the world is closing in and hope—at home and far away—feels especially distant.
I like to think that Garfinkel’s work helps us do that, one questionably delicious (she doesn’t eat them) portrait at a time.
I interviewed Garfinkel at Veselka, a 24-hour Ukrainian diner in the East Village that has been in continuous operation since 1954.
See, it’s been a few generations, but my great great great grandfather, a Lithuanian-Ashkenazi cabinetmaker who originally went by Dovid Mendel Papilsky (his son eventually changed the family name to Saxe,) spent a chunk of his life working in Kyiv. As Russia continues to attack indiscriminately, I find myself wondering what would have happened if my 17-year-old great grandfather hadn’t immigrated by himself to become a traveling salesman. What if he had stayed? If he hadn’t opened a general store in Omaha, Nebraska?
Lithuania is not too far removed from Ukraine, and that makes this all hit very close to home. If you want to learn more about how you can help, Bon Appetit compiled this extensive list of food-related fundraisers, and if you want to understand what it’s like to be thrust into the middle of this tragedy, one of my favorite YouTubers is watching it unfold in real-time from her apartment in Poland. And if you’re bogged down by doomscrolling but still want to understand what’s going on, check out @underthedesknews, who does a great job of making even the most complex stories a little less awful every day.
I just finished listening to Any Way the Wind Blows, Rainbow Rowell’s triumphant ending to the fantastic Simon Snow Trilogy. This series uses the familiar setting of magic school to charm its way just past your defenses so that you will, inevitably, find yourself crying before long. Just imagine what would happen if Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy were roommates, and in love. Except it’s better than that.
I visited Ozakaya this weekend, a lovely spot where you have to try the takoyaki, the bari salad (an unexpectedly addictive combination of cabbage and iceberg lettuce with a funky sesame dressing), and the cold tofu with spicy tuna
Nice Tattoo Parlor lives up to its name. Carmen did a fabulous job on my new ink, was great to talk to, and it was a very nice experience all around