Sunday, June 10, 2012

The bully palate: Presidential gardens, Part I

Michelle Obama has a new book out about the White House vegetable garden (American Grown:  The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden, released in May from Crown Books) and that's got me thinking about the long history of what happens when people at the pinnacle of power use food and farming as an expression of their values or ideals.

I actually started thinking about this earlier in the spring, when a student in my tourism seminar at Tufts said she'd been wondering about Marie Antoinette playing farmer at Hameau de la reine at Versailles (shown at left).  Was that in some sense a working farm (maybe in the mode of other elite model farms of the kind that I've written about in an earlier post)?  And if it was, even in an elitist demonstration-farm kind of way, is the image of the queen as nothing more than a dilettante aristocrat dressing up as a shepherdess for kicks perhaps a distortion of a more complicated reality in which real and represented farming somehow overlapped?

It does seem that the tastes and agricultural aspirations of those in power are particularly vulnerable spots that political and ideological enemies have historically rushed to exploit.  Michelle Obama's garden has been the subject of eager press coverage about the level of lead in the soil--evidently a legacy of Clinton-era application of sewage sludge as lawn fertilizer--as well as a disinformation campaign by agribusiness organizations who warned that the food from the garden would be dangerous because it hadn't been grown with safety-enhancing chemical pesticides.  Critics also invoked fears of elitism and exclusive access to over-priced organic foods, perhaps keying off the famed arugula gaffe of the 2008 Obama campaign.  (The Daily Show gleefully satirized the whole debate in May 2009.)

The fears surrounding the present garden are an interesting echo of an earlier day:   Eleanor Roosevelt's World War II era Victory Garden at the White House apparently provoked initial opposition from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which feared that the First Lady's support for home-grown vegetables would hurt the American food industry, which had just struggled through a long Depression.  During an earlier war, Woodrow Wilson had a flock of sheep brought in to save labor on White House groundskeeping (the wool was also auctioned off to raise money for the Red Cross).  I don't know what the contemporary public and media response to this was, but a present-day Google search reveals suggests that it's now seen as an odd Presidential quirk, at best.  Something about modern First Families going "back to the land," even a little bit, seems to provoke some kind of civic anxiety.  Maybe it's felt to be phony or to upset the settled hierarchy in which manual labor is always lower on the power scale.

The relative secrecy surrounding the the small organic garden that flourished during the Bush Sr. and Clinton presidencies seems to bear this out.  (It's not clear whether it was White House staff or Clinton himself, following Jimmy Carter's lead, whose objections resulted in the garden being located on the roof rather than on the ground where it might disturb the formality of the White House grounds.)  Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton certainly didn't write books about it--they stuck to the safer First Lady topics of child-raising, education, and more domesticated kinds of animals.

Michelle Obama's stated rationale for the new White House garden--it produces healthier food and outdoor activity for her own and other children--actually fits quite neatly within that range of topics.  The White House is clearly attempting to downplay the connections with the local and sustainable food movement, but the controversy surrounding the garden shows that its more political meanings are still being received and debated, and that seems like a good thing to me.

Next week I'm planning to write about earlier Presidential farms and gardens, including Martin Van Buren's own "arugula gap."  Stay tuned.

(Image above is by Acclaim Images)

1 comment:

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