Tuesday, May 29, 2012

From Dirt To Dinner: Inside First Lady Michelle Obama's New Book 'American Grown'

White House chefs, gardening experts, sports heroes and celeb chefs spotlighted...

By Eddie Gehman Kohan and Marian Burros

Michelle Obama
is the only presidential spouse in history to publish a book about a signature 'First Lady' campaign in the first term of her husband's presidency. The much-anticipated project, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, went on sale nationwide on Tuesday, with a New York City TV book tour scheduled to mark the debut. Mrs. Obama was scheduled to discuss her first outing as an author on Good Morning America, The View, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. There will be more TV in the weeks ahead.  (Above:  A photo compilation of images from the book)

American Grown is a huge combo platter that gives a history of Mrs. Obama's personal journey from novice gardener to becoming the nation's best-known child health advocate. She recounts the many achievements of the 27-month-old Let's Move! childhood obesity initiative, started a little more than a year after President Obama took office as she tells the story of her 1,500-square-foot Kitchen Garden. The most famous and visible evidence of her efforts to promote healthier eatong, the garden is lavishly documented with images by the White House photographers, an acclaimed pro hired to create lush photo spreads for the book, and in archival footage.

“I wanted this new White House garden to be a ‘learning garden,’ a place where people could have a hands-on experience of working the soil, where children who have never seen a plant sprout could put down seeds and seedlings that would take root,” Mrs. Obama writes.

Mrs. Obama is also the only First Lady in White House history to utilize her domestic and grounds staff as policy ambassadors, and the White House chefs and National Park Service employees who tend the garden are all over the book, of course. American Grown includes plenty of guidance for joining Let's Move!, with a comprehensive gardening guide by the chief White House horticulturalist; 16 recipes and essays from the White House chefs; and a peek inside community and school gardening projects from Hawaii to New Jersey, with testimonies from local advocates. The project is both a record of and a handbook for transforming the very fabric of American food culture in the home, in schools and communities, and across the nation, a paradigm shift that begins with digging in the dirt and ends at the dinner table.

CLICK HERE for an excerpt from American Grown.

Mrs. Obama makes it clear that the kind of things she has been talking about since launching her campaign--making healthier foods more affordable and accessible, eliminating food deserts, planting gardens, educating kids about healthy eating--have plenty of supporters across the nation, including that of people as seemingly different as Jay Leno and NBA legend Grant Hill, who are both in the book. Hill event wrote an essay for American Grown; ostensibly the book is about gardening and cooking, but there is loads of information about the flip side of Let's Move!, fitness and physical activity. Olympians Dominique Dawes and Michelle Kwan are also featured.

High-profile supporters who offer essays in addition to Hill include renowned urban agriculture expert Will Allen, a MacArthur 'genius' honoree who joined Mrs. Obama at the White House for the launch of Let's Move! in 2010. Lt. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, now the chief of Army forces in Europe, describes the national security threat involved in having high obesity rates in the US. That's a part of the campaign rhetoric that, like the disputed existence of food deserts, has garnered Mrs. Obama criticism.

Celebrity chefs and food personalities, regular guests at the White House since 2009, are part of the book, including Top Chef's Tom Colicchio, Nate Berkus, Alton Brown, and talk show host Rachael Ray, who nabbed a special interview/White House visit with Mrs. Obama that will air this Thursday, May 31. Even the First Lady's visit to The Tonight Show in February of this year is included in the book, adding more star power. Mrs. Obama got the avowed veggie-hating Leno to sample some vegetables onscreen, worth its weight in gold in terms of celeb promos for healthy eating.

Photos of Mrs. Obama's many child guests who have helped her harvest and plant the Kitchen Garden fill the book, and some of their writings about the Kitchen Garden are included, too.

The gardening guide...
Jim Adams, a National Park Service employee who is the chief horticulturalist at the White House, offers three essays on gardening, which introduce readers to growing vegetables just like Mrs. Obama. These are scaled for different sized projects, including windowsill and container gardening, and are very detailed. He also offers a good guide to composting; no chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used in the Kitchen Garden.

There's also recap of the vegetables that have been grown in the garden through the seasons over the last three years, which includes the heritage varieties grown in two special beds in honor of President Thomas Jefferson. A special section on mushrooms is included, too; there are mushroom logs growing in the shade behind the garden. American Grown has illustrations of the various layouts for the garden over the years, and a broad history of gardening at the White House. Farmer Jim Crawford, who runs the 95-acre New Morning Farm in south-central Pennsylvania, provided gardening advice to the White House, and he is profiled.

On May 17, a Gardening Guide was unveiled for the first time on LetsMove.gov, the official website for Mrs. Obama's obesity campaign. Adams' essays in the First Lady's book are much better.

The White House beehive, which sits close to the Kitchen Garden, is the first to be on the grounds, and has its own section in American Grown. Beekeeper in Chief Charlie Brandts is profiled. A carpenter who worked for close to three decades in the White House carpentry shop, Brandts, a Maryland native, "officially" retired on May 1, but he still oversees the hive, which has about 70,000 honeybees. Honey has been used for State Dinners, as gifts for dignitaries and royalty, and for First Family dinners, among its many other uses. Not mentioned in the book: The White House chefs are the first in history to homebrew beer, and they do so with White House honey.

Of course the five pillars of the Let's Move! campaign are woven throughout the text, including food deserts--the subject of much recent controversy. Mrs. Obama applauds private-sector partners for the Let's Move! campaign, including Walmart, though there is no mention of the recent allegations that corporate executives took bribes for the Mexico branch of the operation. Mrs. Obama also hails national food corporations for their Let's Move! pledge to remove 1.5 trillion calories from America's food chain. This commitment may be impossible to verify, and a formal report from Partnership for a Healthier America, the Let's Move!-associated foundation that monitors all private-sector commitments to the campaign, isn't due until 2013.

But two special kids are apparently not having the "hands on" experience Mrs. Obama hoped for in the Kitchen Garden, because they are nowhere to be found in American Grown.* Though she notes that the Let's Move! campaign sprang from her experience as a mother transforming the diets of daughters Malia, now 13, and Sasha, now 10, there are no photos of the girls in the book. And President Obama appears in just two small photos. In one, he selects a pair of gardening gloves as a gift for Mrs. Obama during a visit to a hardware store; in the second, he is with Mrs. Obama, after presenting her with the gloves. Many photos of Mrs. Obama with the bright green gloves and white gloves follow, though curiously, the gloves are always spotless. First Dog Bo--whom Mrs. Obama has hailed as "the most famous Obama"--seems to be everywhere in the pages.

Still, what the book lacks in visual images of the First Family, Mrs. Obama makes up for with personal anecdotes. Her mother, Mrs. Marian Robinson, used to eat from a Victory Garden, Mrs. Obama writes. As a youth in Chicago her father, Frasier Robinson III, worked on a truck that sold produce from its flatbed. The First Lady also describes the Commander in Chief as being a bit bee phobic. President Obama had some concerns about the first-ever White House beehive, which sits beside the Kitchen Garden. It has produced more than 500 pounds of honey to date.

"When we told him about our plans for the hive, he was less than enthusiastic," Mrs. Obama writes abut her husband. "The best spot was not far from the basketball court where he likes to play, and he was worried about the girls, and even Bo, getting stung...Eventually he came round to the idea, and we began creating a home for our bees."

There is also a section on early childhood interventions; on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the school lunch legislation that Mrs. Obama championed; a section about the Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools campaign, and on the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a tri-agency federal effort to fund supermarket projects in what are called "underserved communities." A section on resources for gardening and other Let's Move! initiatives is included at the end of the book.

The Chefs and the recipes...
The White House recipes in the book (such as the one for Minted Spring Pea Salad) are categorized by season, and designed to be healthy, affordable, and delicious. Executive Chef Cris Comerford provides eight recipes, assistant chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass provides four, and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses provides four. Yes, dessert is part of healthy eating--just not every day, Comerford notes in a special section about revamping lunch menus, "Build A Better Lunch." Yosses writes about "finding community in the kitchen," while Kass offers his own mini essay in which he praises America's hardworking food producers. His recipe for braised pork shoulder is the first ever released by the Obama White House that uses pork.

The recipes for Spring are for the Minted Spring Pea Salad; Spinach Pie; Rhubarb Strawberry Crumble Pie; and White Bean Salad. The recipes for Summer are for Green Beans with Almonds; Summer Chopped Salad; Corn Soup with Summer Vegetables; and Buttermilk Blueberry Bundt Cake (previously released and available here).

The recipes for Fall are for Linguine with Mushroom and Bacon Sauce; Collard Greens; Sweet Potatoes Two Ways; and Sweet Potato Quick Bread. The recipes for Winter are for a Winter Salad; Cauliflower Mac and Cheese (previously released and available here); Braised Pork Shoulder with Butternut Squash and Greens; and White Chocolate-Cherry-Carrot Cookies. There's also a recipe for Roasted Pumpkin Seeds (previously released and available here with a soup recipe).

The enhanced iBook edition of the book now available at the iTunes store has more White House recipes that are not available in the print edition. Check the sidebar of this blog for all White House recipes released to date.

The gardening projects profiled in American Grown...
The First Lady's book was originally subtitled How the White House Kitchen Garden Inspires Families, Schools and Communities, but this was changed in January of this year to the current subtitle, The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, perhaps because many of the gardening projects that are included in the book pre-date Mrs. Obama's own Kitchen Garden.

The projects included are City Gardens in Houston, Texas; The Readington Community Garden in Readington Township, New Jersey; P-Patch in Seattle, Washington; Rainbow Beach Park in Chicago, Illinois; Gardens of Service in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Camden City Garden Club in Camden, New Jersey; Will Allen's Growing Power project in Chicago, Ill; MA'O Organic Farms in Waianae, HI, and New Roots Community Farm in San Diego, CA. Mrs. Obama has paid visits to the last three projects on this list.

Two school gardens from Brooklyn are profiled, too, including PS 102 and PS 107; kids from the school were scheduled to join Mrs. Obama on Tuesday on Good Morning America.

There's also a section on donating garden bounty to those in need; the White House has donated abut a third of the crops from Mrs. Obama's garden to Miriam's Kitchen, a Washington, DC social services agency that provides meals for the homeless.

Proceeds go to the National Park Foundation...
Mrs. Obama accepted no advance for the project, and will donate her author proceeds to the National Park Foundation, the East Wing announced last week. Random House, parent of publisher Crown Publishing Group, will also donate an unspecified portion of its proceeds to the National Park Foundation. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Bo in an image from the book)

"All author proceeds will go to the National Park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks," said the First Lady's Office. "Funds will be used for programs that promote gardening and healthy eating and give young people the opportunity to experience the outdoors and lead more active lives, as well as for the continued care of the White House Kitchen Garden."

The White House says the Kitchen Garden cost less than $200 to start in 2009. But it requires daily meticulous care, thanks to its location on the South Lawn, where it is visible to the thousands of tourists who visit the White House each month.

The dedication...
In a triple dedication, Mrs. Obama honors those she is writing about, dedicating the book "to our nation's children, who deserve to grow up healthy and strong and have every chance to pursue their dreams," and "to all the farmers, educators, advocates, community leaders, parents, and others who have been leading the way for years." Her own family, of course, receives the ultimate dedication: "To my husband and children for their boundless love and countless hours of conversation around the dinner table--you are the center of my world, and I could not have done this without you."

Behind the scenes...
Mrs. Obama had the assistance of Washington-based journalist Lyric Winik in crafting her prose, though Winik is mentioned only in an acknowledgements section at the back of the book, where Mrs. Obama also thanks her agent and editor. Winik is the go-to scribe for political memoirs after working with First Lady Laura Bush on her bestselling Spoken From the Heart and with Sen. Scott Brown on his bestselling Against All Odds. Winik also gets credit for some of the photos taken of the guest essayists in Mrs. Obama's book, which leads to the conclusion that she helped with the guest essays in American Grown, too.

Mrs. Obama, President Obama, Sen. Brown, and Mrs. Bush are all represented by Bob Barnett, the legendary Washington power broker/agent who first announced the First Lady's book deal in March of 2011. Australian food/lifestyle lensman Quentin Bacon, in high demand for cookbooks by A-list chefs, provided recipe photos and many other images for the book, as did White House photographers Chuck Kennedy, Lawrence Jackson, and Samantha Appleton. The work of other photographers who have captured images of what is possibly the most filmed garden in modern times is also in the book, including photos by the editor of this blog.

While the hardcover edition, which retails for $30, is lovely, it almost pales in comparison to the enhanced iBook edition ($14.99), which contains loads of extra goodies in addition to the additional recipes. There are more photos, special videos, and games for kids, such as Bo's Vegetable Quiz. The book, from Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, is also available in an audio and a Kindle edition from Amazon.com.

for links to all posts about the Kitchen Garden. CLICK HERE for links to all posts about American Grown. CLICK HERE for all Let's Move! posts.

*Mrs. Obama noted this morning during her appearance on Good Morning America that her daughters have no interest in gardening. Everyone in the First Family would be on weeding duty except for Mrs. Robinson, Mrs. Obama told Marian Burros, co-author of this post, in a New York Times interview in 2009, on the eve of the groundbreaking for the garden.

Book photos by Quentin Bacon courtesy of Crown Publishing Group. Reprinted from American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America by Michelle Obama. Copyright © 2012 by the National Park Foundation. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.