Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Rhubarb Dance & Other Tales From The Spring Planting Of The Kitchen Garden

Cabinet Secretaries & special guests; more Thomas Jefferson veggies planted; the biocycler...
First Lady Michelle Obama
has touted the yum factor of vegetables for more than a year, but Wednesday was the first time that she's heavily promoted the fitness factor of gardening, too. Mrs. Obama did this in a particularly memorable way during the Spring planting event for the Kitchen Garden, when she created a special dance in honor of rhubarb.

Under a stunningly bright afternoon sky, surrounded by newly flowering trees and baby vegetables, Mrs. Obama got her student helpers--and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass--to join in, too. It was a hilarious new-modern Spring ritual, and another 'landmark' moment in American food culture, unexpected and fun. (Above: Mrs. Obama, Kass (back to camera), and garden helpers dance around newly planted rhubarb in the Kitchen Garden)

The First Lady's dancing gardeners were among a group of forty kids in grades three through six from Hollin Meadows Elementary School in Virginia, and Bancroft Elementary School in DC. Some of the Bancroft kids have visited the Kitchen Garden before, and some were newbies. The Hollin Meadows students were all first timers, but they have their own big school garden at home, and looked like pros as they pried baby vegetables out of little crates. Mrs. Obama visited them last November, and dug in their school garden. (Above: Mrs. Obama plants broccoli with her helpers)

The First Lady and the kids had just finished installing rhubarb shoots in a raised box bed when Mrs. Obama waved her hands in dramatic circles over the red veggies, and chanted "grow, rhubarb, grow!" The chanting morphed into a little dance around the planting box, complete with Mrs. Obama throwing in the flourish of toe touches. The kids followed along, at first a little uncertain, but then they started giggling. They were at the White House, and gardening, which was unusual enough, but now they were dancing with the First Lady, too.

Kass was moving between the different groups who were working around the garden. It's bigger for Year II, with two extra crop rows added, for an additional 400 square feet of growing space; it's now 1,500 square feet in total. (Kass and a tiny helper, left)

"What's going on?" Kass said, as he walked up and saw Mrs. Obama leading her version of a crop circle.

"Had a little growing dance here," Mrs. Obama said, as if chanting incantatory phrases and dancing are mandatory for vegetable growth. In many cultures, these are: Fertility rites and crop dances are ancient traditions across the world.

Kass had just planted his own box of rhubarb with a different group of junior gardeners, including two little boys who barely came up to his waist. "You think your rhubarb will get bigger than mine?" He asked Mrs. Obama, and tried not to laugh.

The First Lady allowed that the answer was yes, because hers had the benefit of dancing. She suggested Kass learn the dance. A moment later, Mrs. Obama and the kids had Kass waving his hands over the rhubarb, then dancing around the box, chanting "grow, rhubarb, grow!"

"You gotta get your hips into it, Sam!" Mrs. Obama instructed from behind him as they danced, and Kass obliged with some funky moves. (Above)

Kass can dance pretty well, BTW, in addition to being an excellent chef and policy wonk. Mrs. Obama has danced in public on the South Lawn before, for instance for the Fiesta Latina, but not in the garden. And of course she's also famously hula hooped. But the public dancing was a White House first for Kass. It's perhaps safe to say that if Kass ever imagined he'd be a chef at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a rhubarb dance filmed by global media outlets probably didn't figure in the scenario. But then, not much from the first foodie year at the White House has been predictable.

The biocycler has a big debut...
Even the garden dirt got special attention for Wednesday's planting. In the morning, a mini-tractor buzzed across the South Lawn, getting the beds ready. Kass said that the soil had been prepared with compost from the on-site biocycler, which converts food scraps from the kitchen and trimmings from the garden into a nutrient-rich soil amendment, using a special process that involves plenty of worms and aeration. The garden is not certified organic, which is a three-year process under USDA guidelines, but it uses no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. In Year I, it was amended with crab meal, lime, and green sand, among other organic materials, to boost nutrient content and balance soil acidity. (Above: Kass and Mrs. Obama in the center of the garden)

"This is the first time we've been able to use the outputs from the biocycler to cover the entire garden," Kass said. "We've used it for sections of the garden before, but this time we had enough for the whole thing. The compost is great, and really helps the plants grow."

The biocycler is partially hidden in bushes at the far end of the garden, and looks like a storage bin to those who actually notice it. Kass has not discussed it that much publicly; the focus of garden chats is usually the health benefits of fresh fruit and veggies, rather than the fact that the project is also a lesson in best-practices for conservation and land stewardship.

A little child shall lead them...
Before the digging & dancing began, Mrs. Obama welcomed the kids as they sat at picnic tables covered with red and white checked cloths. A basket of apples sat at the center of each table, and Mrs. Obama encouraged the kids to eat these as she spoke. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius flanked Mrs. Obama as she thanked the kids for inspiring her and helping launch Let's Move! (Above)

"You guys did it," Mrs. Obama said to the kids, and pointed out that the Kitchen Garden "began a conversation about getting kids and parents and teachers all across the country thinking about living healthy," which helped create "a national and international conversation." Like the rhubarb dance, Let's Move! arose out of a moment of inspiration and kept on going.

"Everybody is talking about that garden, not just here in Washington, not just here in the United States, but all over the world," Mrs. Obama said. "And we've been able to start thinking about things like getting kids to try new foods that they've never tried, vegetables that they've never had."

But ketchup is not a vegetable...
Sec. Sebelius echoed the First Lady in her own remarks, when she told the kids that Mrs. Obama is "the most famous vegetable gardener in the world," and added that together, they're going to help make school lunches much, much healthier. The Secretary then told the kids the strange story of ketchup being included on school lunch menus as a vegetable, without naming the former president who deemed this practice acceptable. (Above: Sec. Sebelius with Sec. Vilsack)

"How many of you planted ketchup last year in the garden?" Sec. Sebelius asked, and most of the kids, of course, shook their heads, uncertain if Mrs. Obama's nice "friend" was perhaps playing an early April Fool's joke.

"Ketchup tastes pretty good, but ketchup has a lot of salt and a lot of it's not really good for you," Sec. Sebelius said.

Sec. Vilsack skipped complicated formal remarks, but simply thanked the kids for their inspiration, too, and for "getting him out of the office." He led the kids in cheering for vegetables, which is usually Mrs. Obama's job, but apparently she'd traded it in for the role of rhubarb dance master.

"Yay for broccoli! Yay for carrots! Yay for spinach!" was Sec. Vilsack's rallying cry.

Sec. Vilsack's wife, Christie Vilsack, was on hand to help plant, too. Mrs. Vilsack has joined Kass on school visits around DC, and she's also the new honorary co-chair for a national kids' school lunch cooking competition run by Chicago non-profit Healthy Schools Campaign. (Above: Mrs. Vilsack, in blue, with Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses)

Five of the White House chefs also joined in the harvest, of course, because they not only work in the garden, they use its bounty on a regular basis. (Above: From L, assistant chef David Luerson, pastry assistant Margie Fineran, Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, and assistant pastry chef Susie Morrison)

Historic Jefferson Veggies in the garden again...
White House horticulturalist Jim Adams was accompanied during the planting by Peter Hatch, who is the master gardener at Monticello, President Thomas Jefferson's historically preserved plantation in Virginia. Last year, Hatch donated seeds and starts to the White House from Monticello's vegetable garden, and there's a special Jefferson bed along one side of the Kitchen Garden.

Hatch has also provided plenty of advice about growing in the DC climate, and historic vegetables; he's one of the foremost authorities in the US about gardening, as well as the number one Jefferson authority. This year, according to Hatch, he brought seven flats of Monticello vegetables for planting in the Kitchen Garden. He noted that at least four flats -- some 100 plants -- were set out for the planting: French artichokes, Brown Dutch lettuce, Tennis-ball lettuce, Bath Cos lettuce, and Spotted Aleppo lettuce. Hatch said the first three were Jefferson varieties at Monticello, and the other two lettuces were grown by other gardeners around 1800. Hatch added that he had plenty of "fun" at the planting event too, although he didn't do the rhubarb dance. (Above: Hatch, in khakis, with Kass, Yosses, and a National Park Service gardener, before the planting started)

Mrs. Obama's Chief of Staff, Susan Sher, also planted in the garden, and handed out broccoli shoots to willing kids. New Social Secretary Julianna Smoot watched the activity from the sidelines; she makes her "big debut" at next Monday's Easter Egg Roll. (Above: The Kitchen Garden, immediately after the planting was completed)

At the end of the event, the kids took a photo with Mrs. Obama and the Secretaries and chefs, in front of the South Portico of the White House. "Apples!" was the smile word substituted for "cheese," of course. The kids surrounded the First Lady and asked for hugs before she left. She handed out plenty, then vanished back to the White House, deep in conversation with Sec. Vilsack.

The veggies planted for Spring, in addition to the Jefferson varieties: Cheddar and white cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy, purple and white kohlrabi, red and green chard, mustard greens, peas, spinach, carrots, sorrel, collards, leeks, onions, shallots, cabbage, red and green lettuce. Garlic, peas, carrots and arugula are carrying over from the winter planting. Fig, spearmint, and rhubarb are planted in boxes, and the herbs include chervil, rosemary, bay, sage, thyme, chives, and marjoram. (Above: Sec. Vilsack washes his hands after the planting, while Kass holds the watering can)

The Kitchen Garden crops will be used in the White House kitchen, and will continue to be donated to Miriam's Kitchen, a local social service agency that runs the only soup kitchen in DC that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner for the local homeless population.

*A video of Mrs. Obama and the Cabinet Secretaries' remarks at the planting event, and the transcript, is here. Sam Kass blogs about the Spring planting here.

*Photos by Obama Foodorama; Hatch photo courtesy of Peter Hatch.