Saturday, June 04, 2011

First Lady Hosts "Three Sisters" Spring Planting And Harvest In White House Kitchen Garden

Blessings & a bevy of firsts as American Indian guests join First Lady, continuing the Administration's spotlight on the Tribal Nations...
The menu for next week's State Dinner for German Chancellor Angela Merkel is still top secret, but one thing is for certain: The White House Kitchen Garden vegetables that will be used are extra, extra special. On Friday afternoon, during a combination Spring harvest and planting that used Native American growing techniques, First Lady Michelle Obama, Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, and a group of American Indian guests participated in a prayer ceremony beside the lush crop rows. Merkel and the rest of the guests at the State Dinner will be dining on blessed beets and broccoli, among other bounty. UPDATE: The State Dinner menu, which used plenty of the lettuces, broccoili and herbs that were harvested. (Above: Mrs. Obama and her helpers plant seeds; Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians, is in red)

The kids and adults who joined Mrs. Obama under the white hot Washington sky were members of tribes from across the US, and it was the first time in two years that the First Lady's junior garden helpers were not from DC schools. The guests were invited in honor of the latest component of Mrs. Obama's childhood obesity campaign, Let's Move in Indian Country (LMIC). Launched last week during an event in Wisconsin, the sub-initiative encourages the use of "culturally proficient" strategies to create food and fitness projects to make tribal communities healthier.
(Above: Mrs. Obama and her helper in a lettuce bed)

"We’re working specifically with young kids in the Native American community all across the country," Mrs. Obama said during brief welcoming remarks at the garden event. "And this planting is a special way to highlight that new initiative."

Mrs. Obama has launched a spate of sub-initiatives for Let's Move! (Let's Move Faith and Communities, Let's Move Outdoors, Let's Move Cities and Towns, to name a few), but Let's Move in Indian Country is the only one that is designed for a specific cultural and racial minority. It continues the Obama Administration's major focus on the Tribal Nations, which have enjoyed much attention in the last two-plus years.

Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians, led the blessing ceremony before the gardening action began. Mrs. Obama, the kids, Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, and everyone else in the garden bowed their heads as Keel spoke in English and his native tongue. (Above: Keel leading the prayer)

"We always go to the Creator prior to planting,"Keel explained.

Keel asked for blessings for the First Family, the seeds that were about to be planted, the earth, and the men and women in the Armed Forces.

"We ask for a special blessing on the First Lady and her family, and that You keep Your hand on them," Keel said.

During the Spring 2010 planting in April, Mrs. Obama did an impromptu fertility dance over rhubarb, with some of the kid helpers and Sam Kass, but actually praying beside the crop rows is a first for the Kitchen Garden, which now has a long (and ever growing) list of "firsts."

"This is the first time ever that we’re going to do a Three Sisters planting here in the White House Kitchen Garden," Mrs. Obama pointed out. It was also the first time that beets, added to the Kitchen Garden for the first time during the Spring 2011 planting in March, were harvested during a public event. (At left: Assistant pastry chef Susie Morrison with some of the beets)

In addition to Keel, prominent American Indian leaders were also on hand to work in the Kitchen Garden, including NFL quarterback Sam Bradford of the Rams and basketball player Tahnee Robinson; Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk; National Museum of the American Indian Director Kevin Gover; and Indian Health Service Director Dr. Yvette Roubideaux.

Three Sisters in action...
"Three Sisters" is the Native American term for corn, beans, and squash. For the planting, Mrs. Obama and the kids knelt at one end of the 1,500 square-foot garden plot, and sprinkled Cherokee White Eagle corn, Rattlesnake pole beans, and Seminole squash seeds into the ground, so the crops can grow in the traditional Native American way: The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb on, eliminating the need for poles; the beans provide the soil with nitrogen that the other plants use; and the squash will spread along the ground, blocking the sunlight and preventing weeds from growing. (Above: Mrs. Obama, Keel, and the kids install young corn plants)

The seeds were from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. After the Three Sisters planting, Mrs. Obama and her helpers fanned out across the garden to harvest. (Above: Mrs. Obama gives a helper a high five as Kass looks on)

"We’re going to use some of that food in the White House to feed the President’s family and our guests," Mrs. Obama explained. "But we’re also going to give it away to people who need good, healthy food who don't have homes."

About a third of the Kitchen Garden crops are donated to DC's Miriam's Kitchen, a local social services agency that runs a soup kitchen for the homeless.

Mrs. Obama and her two helpers, a dark-haired boy and a little girl with hair the color of corn silk, pulled broccoli, lettuce, and rhubarb out of the raised beds. As they knelt beside a bed of lettuce, Mrs. Obama showed the little boy how to use the knife she was wielding, placing his hand on the yellow shaft and helping him cut through the vegetable stalks (above).

Around them, other knots of harvesting groups pulled up turnips, lettuces, kohlrabi, spinach and kale. Mrs. Obama and her helpers worked on the rhubarb next.

"It’s huge! It’s like an elephant’s ear!" Mrs. Obama said about the rhubarb leaves.

The First Lady's helpers did what kids do: They got creative with the massive leaves, and used them to fan Mrs. Obama, who rocked back on her knees and closed her eyes as she enjoyed the cool breeze, before giggling with the kids. It was blazingly hot, and the oversized leaves were perfect for the task. (Above: the fanning)

There were other moments of amusement during the harvest. Big tubs of iced water were set up along one side of the garden to drop the crops into, both to preserve them from the heat and to get the dirt off.

One tiny visitor, clad in a sparkly headband and a Minnie Mouse t-shirt that read "You had me at cupcake," had Sam Kass (and the nearby photographers) in stitches: The little girl was about waist-high to Kass, and she kept plunging her hands into the icey water as she deposited greens into the tubs. But then she started to jump up and down, doing a jig because the water was so cold.

"Let's not put our hands in the ice," Kass said more than once, trying not to laugh, and he wrapped his hands around the child's to try to warm her up. He finally led her over to work on another garden bed, far from the ice tubs. (Kass and his helper, above, before the dancing started)

Kass and Morrison also spent a lot of time fishing beets out of the tubs. Kass kept explaining to the kids that the beets didn't need to be dunked in the water. But the kids were so thrilled to be plucking and dunking the veggies that they didn't quite hear the message.

The East Wing said that the kids and adults were from tribes that included the Jemez Pueblo, Skokomish, Cherokee, Sault Ste. Marie, Navajo, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, St. Regis Mohawk, Tlingit, Oglala Sioux, Standing Rock Sioux, and the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation.

In addition to Jefferson Keel, prominent American Indian leaders were also working in the Kitchen Garden, including NFL quarterback Sam Bradford of the Rams and basketball player Tahnee Robinson; Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk; National Museum of the American Indian Director Kevin Gover; and Indian Health Service Director Dr. Yvette Roubideaux.

A meeting with President Obama...
Mrs. Obama took a group portrait in the Kitchen Garden with her guests, and then the gardening event ended with little fanfare and quite rapidly. President Obama was due to land on the South Lawn in Marine One after a trip to Ohio, and the vast sweep of the grounds had to be cleared and secured. The President was coming home an hour earlier than expected.

Mrs. Obama's garden visitors went up to stand by the South Portico to watch the dramatic arrival of Marine One, a thrilling and windy event as the chopper hovers above the grass and blows up a mini hurricane before settling onto the ground. Mrs. Obama walked out to meet her husband by the chopper, and then they walked over so Mr. Obama could greet the American Indian guests, as they stood behind a rope line. The President was met with cheers, and posed for photos after shaking everyone's hands.(Above)

The President had had his own gardening moment in Ohio: During a visit to Fred's Pro Hardware in Toledo, a family owned business, he had purchased two pairs of bright green gardening gloves for Mrs. Obama. He carried these as he stepped off Marine One, and presented them to his wife. The First Lady seemed thrilled with her gift, and was happily clutching these as she shook hands with her garden helpers. She'd worn a high tech pair of yellow gloves during the harvesting and planting.

Above: Pastry chefs Chris Philips, Morrison and an assistant bring the harvest baskets back to the residence after the event.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman
Kohan/Obama Foodorama