Chris Hipkins has made no secret of his penchant for sausage rolls. But beyond the layers of puff pastry, there’s a whole lot more at play.
At this point in his tenure, Chris Hipkins’ fondness for sausage rolls will be familiar to most of us. While in London for the coronation, the prime minister was presented with sausage rolls not once, but twice – first on a quaint doily-lined foil tray by King Charles, and again by British prime minister Rishi Sunak, paired, naturally, with Wattie’s tomato sauce. “I was incredibly touched by the gesture, as you will see from the fact that there’s only two left. They were exceptionally good,” Hipkins told media after the meeting with King Charles.
Contextually, it makes a lot of sense. Sausage rolls, which have culinary roots in ancient Greece and 19th century France, gained popularity in London in the early 1800s as a cheap street food, and have since transformed into a quintessentially British delicacy.
And I’ll admit, as someone who’s obviously quite into food, I find all this talk of sausage rolls very charming. But it’s also kind of intriguing if you delve a little deeper.
References to a particular brand of kai have become a defining symbol of Hipkins’ time as a prime minister. Since he began the role he’s shared his love for pies, especially steak and cheese, which prompted journalists to hunt down his favourite pie shop. Hipkins has regularly framed the government’s focus as being on “bread and butter” issues, in defence of its recent policy cull. Heck, even his nickname “Chippy” is a reference to a carb-loaded food. But sausage rolls have certainly been the most notable food association.
Sausage rolls are a wonderful thing, and I honestly have no doubt that Hipkins genuinely likes them. But I also think it would be naive to pretend that this enjoyment isn’t being exaggerated for political effect. Food is political and, as I know from writing about it, also a wonderfully accessible tool for communicating more complex ideas. Sausage rolls in this case could be seen as shorthand for New Zealand-ness, working class identity, authenticity and, more generally, a kind of commonsense brand of politics.
Hipkins isn’t the first politician to attempt to win over voters’ hearts and minds via their stomachs. We love to see politicians with food. When she was prime minister, Jacinda Ardern name-dropped Alison Holst sausage rolls as part of the daily rituals of working in the Beehive during lockdown. Ardern was regularly photographed tongs in hand behind a snag-lined barbecue (we could delve into the gendered references here too, but that’s for another time), and she made regular reference to Morrinsville’s Golden Kiwi Restaurant – the fish and chip shop where she worked as a teen. John Key made no secret of his love for another sausage-based product, the hot dog – with an infamous picture to prove it. For some reason I have a picture saved to my laptop of a suit and tie-clad Key and then-deputy Bill English posing with impressively sized cheese and ham toasties in a sports bar. Rightfully, they both look utterly delighted with their plates.
McDonald’s has been a popular choice among the National Party, with Luxon last year posing for photos at the drive-through of the franchise he worked at as a teenager. In the early 1990s, the National Party “brat pack”, comprising Bill English, Roger Sowry, Nick Smith and Tony Ryall, posed with Big Macs for a photograph mimicking the famous 1980 “fish and chip brigade” shot of Labour politicians David Lange, Michael Bassett, Roger Douglas and Mike Moore tucking into a generous portion of fish and chips. A politician who bucks this trend for the stodgy and beige is Winston Peters, who tends to reach for far more eclectic and diverse kai like raw mussels, fish heads and phenomenally hot tom yum soup, and has proudly touted his fondness for eating a pie with a knife and fork.
Anyway, I digress. The general point is that food has been used, often cynically, as a political tool in Aotearoa: to craft politicians’ images, signal political leanings, reflect policy concerns and forge connections with voters. The assumption being that if you eat like voters, you understand voters.
And to fail at this can be disastrous. For example, it’s been suggested that ex-British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s inability to eat a humble bacon sandwich in a “normal” manner in 2014, which was documented by way of some extraordinarily awkward photographs, led to the end of his political career a year later.
The reassuring sausage roll is perhaps most useful politically not for its own identity, but for the way it distinguishes itself from more politically onerous associations of foods like, say hummus, alternative milks or homemade muesli – all markers of the out of touch “urban liberal elite”. That’s why you’re unlikely to see Chris Hipkins, or any politician vying for “the middle” for that matter, posing with a bowl of silken tofu or divulging to journalists an obsession with oat milk flat whites. Politicians in the middle want to be seen as connected, ordinary and in touch – food is a relatively easy proxy through which to do so.
I’m not here to criticise this strategy – sausage rolls are likely a very useful vessel for communicating an understanding of what certain types of people care about. However, and I mean no disrespect to sausage rolls or to any deliciously carby food, it’s somewhat disappointing that in a country with so much diversity and unique kai of its own, beige bakery fare with resolutely British roots remains the taken-for-granted emblem of authenticity and of “everyday New Zealanders”.
In 2023, it’s an outdated idea of how people eat in this country, what the working class looks like (they’re not solely male and Pākehā) and a rather revealing reflection of which voters matter. When you extrapolate more broadly what that means about our political landscape, it’s even more grim. Whether we like it or not though, I suppose politics is easier to digest if it’s wrapped in pastry.