Food and Political Strategy During the 1930s
by Christian Ortiz
Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) tells the story of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s love affair with his distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley amidst the weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of the United Kingdom visited FDR at his home in Hyde Park, New York. On the brink of war with Germany, the King and Queen of the United Kingdom came to the United States to seek support from FDR, making for an unforgettable weekend with the Roosevelt family. There is an evident cultural and social disconnect between the Roosevelt family and King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth II, however an unsuspecting meal, a hot dog, bridges the gap between the two parties, ultimately giving the United Kingdom our support in the war.
When the Royal Couple are first shown in the United States, they are clearly uncomfortable. They stop on the side of the road on the way to President Roosevelt’s home for George VI to smoke a cigarette, ensuring they wouldn’t arrive at the home too early. Further, he tries, with little success, to “talk to an American” who was riding a tractor in a field nearby. Even from the first scene, the audience can tell that the couple feels out of place in the United States. This apparent discomfort builds the foundation for the entire plot and is crucial to the resolution of the film.
The culture shock continues when they get to FDR’s home which is decorated with comics that seem to make fun of the British. When Elizabeth is shown her room, she stares around the room with apparent discontent, examining the wall paper and beds and commenting on the shared bathroom. The Royal couple lock themselves in their room, make drinks, and discuss their discomfort and goals for the trip. However, FDR recognizes the disconnect and invites George VI to his office for drinks.
FDR has an ongoing debate with his wife about whether he should drink with guests in the house. She doesn’t think it is appropriate to do so with The Royal Couple, but FDR insists that he wants to have a drink with George VI. While his wife doesn’t agree with him, FDR very strategically uses alcohol to establish common ground between them. George VI, although he still seems nervous, graciously accepts a drink and they begin to bond over the drinks. FDR understands how drinks can unite people and uses this to make his guests more comfortable.
George VI and FDR drink for most of the night, opening up to each other as it gets later. FDR’s plan proves to work and the King expresses some of his worries about being in the United States and in his home. Namely, he thinks that serving hot dogs at the picnic was especially peculiar. FDR responds that it was “one of his wife’s silly ideas” as they drunkenly discuss the topic. However, FDR ensures him that it is an American tradition and that he will love it. Despite his uneasiness, FDR again is using something as simple as alcohol and food to help bridge the gap between him. Unlike FDR, George VI is not outgoing and social, and FDR, recognizing this, goes out of his way to bring him out of his shell.
At the picnic, The Royal Couple seem tense. When they are served the hot dogs, they each eye them, but eventually happily dig in. The entire crowd applauds, and FDR smiles. Was it really his wife’s silly idea to serve hot dogs? While the film doesn’t explicitly answer this question, I believe that FDR uses both alcohol and hot dogs to expose the couple to American culture and ease their discomfort. Further, after the picnic, FDR sits down with George IV, and FDR agrees to support the United Kingdom in the war.
While food does not play a large or immediately apparent role in the film, with careful analysis, the viewer can see how food is crucial to the film. Without FDR’s strategic use of alcohol and traditional American food, he would not have been able to connect with the King in the manner that he did. FDR shows he is a normal guy who enjoys drinking and grilling out, and this helps George IV relax with and relate to FDR. It also exposes the couple to American culture in a way they had never seen it before and brings them out of the safety of their wealthy lifestyle. According to this film, a hotdog and alcohol, arguably, were crucial to our support of Great Britain in the war and established a strong relationship between our respective governments.