White House chefs and the limits of personal choice
About a month ago, high-profile foodies got pretty amped up about whom Obama would choose as White House chef. Three of them — Berkeley sustainable food doyenne Alice Waters, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, and New York City restaurateur Denny Mayer — even got together to pen a letter urging the incoming president to replace the current White House chef with someone who chooses locally grown, organic food — preferably sourced from an on-site vegetable garden. According to a New York Times account, the letter states:
A person of integrity who is devoted to the ideals of sustainability and health would send a powerful message that food choices matter. Supporting seasonal, ripe delicious American food would not only nourish your family, it would support our farmers, inspire your guests, and energize the nation.
Last week, Obama defied this gentle effort to convince him to send the incumbent chef packing. Cristeta Comerford, who has been in charge of cooking first-family meals for the Bushes since 2005, will retain her post, the Obama team announced.
My first reaction to this news was disappointment. After choosing an agribiz-friendly pol as USDA chief, couldn’t Obama at least make a symbolic nod in the direction of the sustainable-food movement by picking a new chef?
Now I’m not sure what the fuss was about in the first place.
First of all, we were essentially demanding that Comerford — the first woman to hold the White House chef position, and an immigrant from the Philippines — be fired. That seems a little harsh to me now.
And then, when you look a little deeper into the issue, it turns out that Comerford was already cooking local, organic American food — some of it sourced from a White House roof garden. In other words, Comerford has been doing precisely what Waters, Reichl, and Mayer were urging.
In a recent blog post, former White House chef Walter Scheib — who started under the Clintons in 1994 and stepped down in 2005 — sets the record straight regarding Comerford and the status quo ante of White House cookery. Scheib knows Comerford well; she served as his assistant for seven years before taking the top job in 2005. Here’s Scheib, on his experience as first-family chef:
[N]early all the products used was obtained from local growers and suppliers, in many cases directly from farm stands and growers … Both the Clinton and Bush families dined regularly on organic foods. Laura Bush to her credit … was adamant that in ALL CASES if an organic product was available it was to be used in place of a non-organic product.
And that’s not all:
The tired cliché that President Clinton subsisted on a diet of Big Macs has been repeated ad nauseam; in seven years cooking for him not once was there a Mickey D bag sighted in the White House. Both grass-fed and Wagyu beef was frequently used as were a tremendous variety of high end or atypical items and products. Organic produce and dairy, sustainably caught fish and a myriad of local and regional products were the products of choice of both families … The food at the White House as it should be in everyone’s house, is local, organic, nutritionally responsible and most of all delicious. The current chef, Cris Comerford, is now and has always been deeply committed to these principles, as I was before her.
But what about a White House garden, the thing that many activists have been demanding as a symbolic gesture in support of sustainable-food? Already happening, Scheib reports — though not on quite the grand scale people are hoping for.
There also was a small garden on the roof of the White House where produce was grown for the families’ use.
As for Comerford:
The ethic of both the purchasing and the cooking at the White House under my direction and under the continuing direction of Cris Comerford, my assistant chef of seven years, is one of respect for both the pedigree of the product and manner it is grown, gathered, raised, or caught.
So what have we learned here? I found out about Scheib’s statement from the Association for the Study of Food & Society listserv, in a posting by food scholar Warren Belasco. After reviewing the data on the White House kitchen during the Clinton and Bush II eras, Belasco asked: “So now that we know that our presidents eat delicious, responsible meals, does this make us all feel better?”
I think the answer has to be, no. Even as the first families dined on deftly cooked local and organic fare, Presidents Clinton and Bush busily constructed dreadful food policy, marked by brazen embraces with the most powerful agribusiness interests on the planet.
Clinton may have plied himself with grass-fed beef in the White House dining room; outside it, he could often be found playing footsie with his old Arkansas friends the Tysons of Tyson Foods — the world’s largest purveyor of industrial, CAFO-raised meat. (Clinton once infamously interrupted a consensual act with an intern to receive a call from Florida sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul, a long-time recipient of government largesse.)
George W. Bush may have had Laura in his ear urging him to eat organic, but on matters of agriculture policy, his most influential adviser was Chuck Conner, Archer Daniels Midland’s man at USDA.
In short, in most societies, wealthy, powerful people procure for themselves what’s regarded as the highest-quality food possible. In our time, local and organic fare possesses that status. Can anyone be surprised that our presidents now routinely eat this way?
I’m not so interested in how Obama and his family feed themselves. I am interested in the food policies the new president pursues — which set the parameters for the food system that feeds most families in the United States.