Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Fare First Lady: Michelle Obama and The Year In White House Food, 2009

Paradigm Shift: As 2009 comes to an end, what was startling at the beginning of the year has now become the norm...And some predictions for 2010
Obama Foodorama started way back during campaign season, focusing on everything having to do with President Obama and food, from policy making to cupcakes that carried his image. But since the Obamas moved into the White House last January, First Lady Michelle Obama has gradually replaced her husband as the most written about First Foodie. In 2009, the incredible amount of East Wing activity that is related to food policy has managed to outpace any concrete accomplishments from both the executive and legislative branches of the Obama administration.

Mrs. Obama's position as the Fare First Lady has mirrored her transformation this year into a fashion icon, a seemingly unrelated phenomenon. As 2009 ends, Mrs. Obama is on the top of every annual list of fashion trendsetters, in part due to her penchant for mixing budget-conscious J. Crew separates with the clothing of the most forward-thinking couturiers working today, and thus turning the fashion world on its collective head. But precisely the same aesthetic has held true for the way her food agenda has emerged and progressed.

Just twelve months ago, many of the food initiatives that have now emerged from the White House were simply the bright dreams of what can be regarded as food couturiers, a vocal group of visionary food advocates and farmers, chefs and eaters who have been promoting their ideas for a couple of decades, with a devoted but limited following, compared to the audience for, say, McDonald's hamburgers. But in fairly short order, Mrs. Obama has turned these progressive ideas about food, nutrition and health into standard practice at the White House, and she's also managed to make them as populist and accessible for the general public as J. Crew clothes. A year ago, we were collectively stunned when Mrs. Obama wore a sleeveless shift dress in mid-winter. Today, we say "of course." More than a year ago, planting a vegetable garden on the South Lawn was the subject of petitions, of open letters to the President, of internet chatter. In April, when Mrs. Obama actually planted the garden, she announced: "This is something I wanted to do since the day I moved in here." And she'd actually mentioned it publicly during a campaign stop in 2008. The garden ground breaking caused such a stir that Mrs. Obama wound up as an above-the-fold picture on the top of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Today we say "of course" to a Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn. As 2009 ends, Mrs. Obama's garden is also topping trend lists. What was startling in both food and fashion at the beginning of 2009 has now become the norm.

The People's House, the People's Kitchen, the People's Garden
The food activity at the White House has succeeded in part because of the Couture-to-J. Crew meld. As the White House has become the People's House, more open than ever before, the kitchen has also become the People's Kitchen--and the Kitchen Garden is the People's Garden, perhaps far more so than the USDA project of the same name. But it's worth noting the couture element here, the rare thing that's gone on: Never before have we had a First Lady include progressive food initiatives among her portfolio of projects, and never before have we had an assistant White House chef--Sam Kass--given a title, Food Initiative Coordinator, and charged with the task of developing those projects, and working with both the East Wing, the West Wing, and the USDA on developing food policy. Never before have we had a White House visibly partnering with the USDA on a whole slate of food projects, in particular the drive for dramatic change in child nutrition and federal feeding programs, as well as Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, and the Farmers Market by the White House. (Kass, above)

The progression has been rapid in part because during Mrs. Obama's public remarks about food and eating, and in her public events involving food, she has neatly mixed her J. Crew and her couture. During her speeches, Mrs. Obama has managed to work in some of the most pathbreaking issues discussed by food policy wonks--such as food access and food deserts, chronic diet related diseases and obesity, the importance of local food systems. She's spoken out against fast and processed foods, soda and sugary drinks. But Mrs. Obama has also made food challenges relatable and understandable, the province of regular Americans, by telling her own story of being a working mother worried about her own girls' health.

Not so long ago, Mrs. Obama frequently mentions, she was just like every other time-crunched working parent. And she chose the easy way out, by depending on fast and processed food for family meals. But then she woke up and saw the toll on her family's health--weight gain in particula--,and made gradual changes. Throughout 2009, she's been reminding us of good old common sense regarding food: Dessert is not a given, it's a privilege, and pizza is a treat, not a staple. "Pizza was something I got once a semester, for getting A's," Mrs. Obama has noted. But limiting junk food is something of a couture idea these days, a rare thing--but Mrs. Obama has been returning it to the realm of J. Crew, of popular acceptance. The speeches have been a masterful mix of personalizing the political, while making better food choices seem possible, sane, attainable--and delicious. "Food just tastes better when it's fresher," Mrs. Obama has said. And she's stressed balance and moderation rather than abstinence, which is a far easier sales pitch than total transformation. And for every progressive, intellectual food policy moment, there's been an equivalent element of good, accessible J. Crew fun. Mrs. Obama has Hula hooped and skipped rope on the South Lawn, and she's thrown picnics and barbecues for her many guests--all while focusing on health and nutrition. (Above: Mrs. Obama speaks at the opening of the Farmers Market by the White House, in September, 2009; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack listens. "I've never seen so many people so excited by fruits and vegetables!" Mrs. Obama joked to the onlookers, who were standing in the rain to greet her)

Citizens have responded to Mrs. Obama's speeches--as have food corporations and food producers. With absolutely no legislation introduced on the Hill, some of the biggest food sellers in America have changed their foods voluntarily to far more healthful versions, or started wellness programs. Think PepsiCo and Starbucks, which both revamped their foods this year. PepsiCo also joined forty other food corporations in launching the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, which seeks to combat obesity. Think Kentucky Fried Chicken's launch of grilled chicken and "healthy" sides. Sure, it's nominal movement if you're a hardcore food activist--but it's movement, in the right direction. Food companies are trying to run ahead of the ball, so to speak, in part because of Mrs. Obama's perceived influence with the President, and in part because of fears of legislation. We've had an intractable food culture in America for years, and 2009 has seen some major changes. Certainly the White House food activity has had an impact.

The Kitchen Garden was started with an eye towards nutrition education for children, but has become the most talked about food garden in the world. The most basic project possible--digging and planting food crops, done in such a way that even kids can participate--is actually incredibly progressive, with a soft focus on stewardship of the land, no pesticides or chemical fertilizers used, and a new emphasis on year-round growing. The garden was planted with a J. Crew budget, about $175 in start up costs, but has since produced more than 1,400 pounds of crops. Mrs. Obama has been credited with inspiring home garden planting across the country and around the world--J. Crew--and even the gardening projects of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and Sarah Brown, the wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown--couture. Major thinkers in food--among these bestselling food writer Michael Pollan--have called the garden the most important event in sustainable agriculture this year--but you're just as likely to find the garden mentioned in a tiny local paper. The Kitchen Garden has also been a veritable green Grand Central Station, with an endless stream of visitors that encompass the Couture-to-J. Crew dynamic. Everyone from heads of state and foreign dignitaries and Hollywood and sports celebs to policy makers and Ag advocates and farmers have trooped through the garden--but it's also available to any school group that manages to schedule a visit. And the garden is easily visible to all DC tourists, through the fence that separates the South Lawn from the access road by the Ellipse. Since April, anyone who's had a look at the South Portico of the White House has also seen the garden. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that millions of people have actually seen the Kitchen Garden, live! (Above, Mrs. Obama and student helpers from Bancroft Elementary School, during the Fall Harvest of the Kitchen Garden; Kass is in the background)

The White House kitchen itself has been equally Couture-to-J. Crew. In earlier administrations, the kitchen was a closed, almost top-secret place, in which chefs were discouraged from speaking freely and publicly, but it's now become far more open and accessible. Media has been allowed to shoot video in the kitchen, and all of America can have a look at the place Mrs. Obama has called "where the magic happens," simply by logging onto the Internet. Since February, volunteers, interns and culinary students have been welcomed into the kitchen on a monthly basis. And everyone from professional pizza and pancake makers to celeb chefs have been invited to cook at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and they've all been thrilled to show up. To date, the high point of the White House kitchen's Couture-to-J. Crew aesthetic was the State Dinner in honor of India. Renowned guest chef Marcus Samuelsson's menu for the elegant event, held in an architecturally stunning, glass-paneled tent on the South Lawn, was the capper to a day filled with much-rehearsed pomp and circumstance, and all kinds of symbolism. But Samuelsson's menu used some of the most humble foods possible--potatoes and okra and cornbread, and of course greens plucked from the "backyard" garden. The accompanying wines were definitely from a J. Crew budget, and the dinner itself had an incredibly low budget of about $50 per person, according to Samuelsson. But the overall effect was pure couture. (Above, at the State Dinner, President Obama and Mrs. Obama await the arrival of the guests of honor)

And the rest of the White House buffet...
The Couture-to-J.Crew dynamic has permeated every other element of food activity at the White House, too. Mrs. Obama's visits to soup kitchens and food banks have been another critical part of her food agenda. In these tough times, she's reminded everyone that even if we can't donate actual food to food banks and soup kitchens, it's still possible to show up and work. And included among her advocacy for supporting our troops and their families, there's always the suggestion that making a home-cooked meal is a terrific way to say thanks. This year's numerous burger runs from both the President and First Lady were equally matched with visits to DC-local eateries that focus on farm-to-table sourcing and sustainability. There was even a special Date Night in New York, for a visit to Blue Hill, whose chef, Dan Barber, is so notable for his work in organics and sustainability that he joined Mrs. Obama on this year's Time 100 list. In September, Mrs. Obama made her debut as international hostess at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, and her gift to the spouses of visiting world leaders included jars of honey from her own backyard beehive--as well as a fine china tea set, specially designed for the occasion. Even White House events that have historically never had a food element managed to contain food this year. The 2009 Easter Egg Roll had a Kids Kitchen, and the Fiesta Latina, ostensibly a music event for Hispanic Heritage Month, also featured a high-profile guest chef, Maricel E. Presilla. Of course we can't forget the wooing of reluctant Republicans during the Stimulus debate--with homemade cookies. And this summer, during her vacation time, Mrs. Obama was as likely to pick peaches in Colorado as she was to visit the (closed) Louvre with her girls--or take them to learn to make gelato in Italy, after visiting the (closed) Colosseum. (Above, Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford and executive sous chef Tommy Kurpradit cooking at the 2009 Easter Egg Roll)

2009 ends, 2010 begins, and the TV show that straddles the years
This Sunday evening will be the pinnacle of the Couture-to-J. Crew food aesthetic, when Mrs. Obama and her Executive Chef, Cristeta Comerford, both appear on a special episode of Iron Chef America, Food Network's competition cooking show. The show is both the first food outing for the White House Kitchen in 2010, and the final one for 2009. The two-hour episode was shot last October, and features Comerford doing battle in partnership with Bobby Flay, a chef who's made a big career out of grilling that most American of foods, steak. They'll be competing against Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse, two very famous chefs who tout regional cuisines on their own TV shows. As a platform for promoting Mrs. Obama's healthy eating agenda, a TV show is the ultimate in populist, J. Crew choices. But it's also in the couture category, thanks to the brilliance of all the chefs involved, who will be performing stunning feats of cookery in a race against the clock. "Of course" the Kitchen Garden is part of the Iron Chef America episode, too; veggies that grew in the garden are the "secret ingredients" that the chefs must work into their recipes. (Above, Mrs. Obama at the White House with Chef Comerford and the Iron Chef America cast)

2010: Combating child obesity becomes Mrs. Obama's top priority
In 2010, we'll be seeing a lot more pathbreaking ideas in food from the White House, which could well include more food TV appearances, White House livestock, aquaculture, window gardens, a green roof food garden on the top of the White House, the planting of grain crops, a greenhouse, video cooking lessons from the White House kitchen staff. But there will, without a doubt, be an intense focus from the First Lady on child obesity. Mrs. Obama will be leading the charge to alter the vast scope of the national health problem, which impacts children and families in every state of the country. Obesity is the critical issue that impacts policy making from many departments in her husband's administration: Defense, education, health, labor, agriculture. 2010's looking to be as much of a paradigm shifter as 2009. You might even say obesity is a J. Crew issue: It impacts a stunning percentage of American citizens, young and old, with percentage rates of prevalence varying in the population from twenty percent to above fifty percent, depending on age, race, and state of domicile. It's a relatable issue. And one our First Lady is rolling up her sleeves to take on...that is, if she actually wore sleeves.

And by the end of 2010, everyone will be saying "of course" to the creative and pathbreaking approaches Mrs. Obama suggests for dealing with obesity, too.

*Photos by Obama Foodorama, except for Iron Chef photo and Mrs. Obama's official portrait, both via the White House.