By MSNBC contributor
updated 2/3/2004 2:05:10 PM ET 2004-02-03T19:05:10

“With every passing year, we care more and more about food, and we have less and less time to cook.” — R.W. Apple, Jr., New York Times, Dec. 12, 2001

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One of the great mysteries of presidential politics is this: Why do Iowa and New Hampshire get to vote first?  That answer is simple: snobbery.  Both states have written into law that they must be first.  Adding to the hubris, they block any other state trying to upstage their first-in-the-nation status.  Of course, the law ignores the reality that in January both Iowa and New Hampshire are colder than meat lockers and blanketed in feet of snow, making one wonder how their residents can be smart enough to choose our president when they’re dumb enough to live in those states.

That’s Iowa and New Hampshire.  But what about South Carolina, the third leg of the presidential campaign triple crown?  We’ve all heard the steady drumbeat of noise of how important South Carolina is — more important, in fact, than the other six states with Feb. 3 primaries.  But why?

Another easy answer: The media.

Now it can be revealed: South Carolina’s importance in the nominating process is really a media creation.  It all has to do with the media’s obsession with food. Many other states top South Carolina for delegates, but few places in America can top the Palmetto State for food.  Why file news reports from Jefferson City or Tulsa when expense reports can be filed with equal ease from Charleston?

No. 3 on Conde Nast's list
Conde Nast Traveler ranked Charleston third on its list of destinations for diners, behind San Francisco and New York.  And according to the Charleston Post and Courier, “Dining in Charleston is an experience filled with as much charm and treasure as the city itself. Charleston offers cuisine choices for every type of taste bud: Southern, American, French, Barbeque, Steak, Caribbean, Jamaican, and Seafood just to name a few!”

The media can name a whole bunch more.  Just ask the top political/culinary observers — someone like, say, the appropriately named R.W. (Johnny) Apple of the New York Times.  Apple once wrote 4,400-word love letter about Charleston, plugging such glories as “updated Dixie cooking, unashamedly rich and sweet, of restaurateurs like Louis Osteen, whose homely fried peach pie with butter pecan ice cream makes you forget Escoffier's peach Melba.”

Another time Apple wrote this of Charleston’s Hominy Grill: “This is a place whose breads are homemade, where instant grits and quick grits and machine-ground grits find no welcome. Fried eggs are gentled to perfection, with the yolks brilliantly glossy and just slightly set and none of those dry, disagreeably frazzled edges on the whites.”

You just don’t hear those lip-smacking adjectives associated with such places as St. Louis or Phoenix, where voting also occurs Feb. 3 in states with more delegates than South Carolina.  No wonder Apple’s Jan. 24 story about John Kerry was datelined Charleston, S.C.  Ground zero.  Not for politics, but for restaurants. In the story, Apple reported that “rumors swirled in political circles in Columbia, the capital, that Mr. Kerry intended to give the primary here a pass.”  The rumors were in Columbia.  The filing was in Charleston.

Heck, at that rate, why not report on North Dakota from North Charleston?

Local media in on the joke
The local South Carolina media gets the food joke, too.  The Charleston Post and Courier did a story on what the candidates like to eat, preparing for when they “descend on our state for the Feb. 3 primary.”  And the Raleigh News & Observer reported that at one point, the South Carolina Democratic party floated the idea that Democrats might want to find a corporate sponsor for their primary. One person suggested a "Chick-Fil-A South Carolina Democratic Primary." 

In Des Moines, the media dumped thousands of dollars on 41 — no, not the first Bush president, but the “in” restaurant at the Hotel Fort Des Moines.  (Top political reporters gobbled down the beet, walnut, and blue cheese salad.)  In Manchester, the hip, buzzy media joint was Richard’s Bistro, which must have turned a hefty profit during primary season to cover the entire year — as well as the early retirement of owner Mr. Richard himself.

But those were single restaurants in single states.  Feb. 3 offers a much wider variety of choices.  And they’re all in Charleston, where there’s a booming industry of restaurants.   The 1,210 restaurants Charleston offers beat the 74 delegates Missouri offers, the most available on Tuesday.

The media says South Carolina is critical because we want to hang out there.  Yes, the
calendar has much to do with its importance.  But not because it comes right after New Hampshire.  Rather, because it comes right in the middle of oyster season.  And you just can’t get good oysters in Missouri.

Howard Mortman is a producer for "Hardball with Chris Matthews."

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