Monday, February 25, 2013

Clara Silverstein: In the garden with Michelle Obama

I remember the crisp October day that I stood on the White House lawn, notebook poised, as First Lady Michelle Obama led the first official fall harvest of her White House Kitchen Garden. Mrs. Obama slipped on a pair of black gardening gloves, dug a pitchfork into the sweet potato bed, and pulled up a dirt-caked vegetable.

“Now, this is a sweet potato! Let’s see who can get the biggest,” she said, as fifth graders from the Bancroft and Kimball schools in Washington, D.C. prepared to help. One girl squealed, and Mrs. Obama laughed. Then she and the students went to work, pulling out radishes, lettuce, bell peppers, eggplant, and more than a dozen crops.

I visited the garden as part of my research for A White House Garden Cookbook, published in 2010 by Red Rock Press. The book chronicles the first year of the White House Kitchen Garden, and includes recipes from the White House as well as gardening groups around the country that work with children. All the recipes in the book contain at least one ingredient that the White House grew in 2009, the first season of the 1,100 square foot garden (since expanded) that Mrs. Obama spearheaded. The 55 varieties of vegetables, berries, and herbs ended up on the First Family table or at official functions, including state dinners. A soup kitchen in Washington also received White House grown crops. In all, the garden produced more than 1,000 pounds of produce in its first year.

When Mrs. Obama dug up a patch of the South Lawn at the White House, she planted the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt grew a Victory Garden in 1943. Thomas Jefferson started the tradition with his 1801 vegetable garden. A bed in the current White House garden, planted with heirloom beans and lettuces sent from Monticello, his restored home in Virginia, commemorates Jefferson.

Research for the book took me back through Presidential history, but also into farms, after-school programs, and botanical gardens that currently work with children. Mrs. Obama uses the garden as a way to encourage Americans, especially children, to take an active role in growing their own food and eating a healthier diet. But what other connections can we make between government and the local food movement?

Mrs. Obama has published American Grown, her own book about the garden, to tell the story of how she planted it and used it to spark public policy initiatives for school lunch and exercise programs. The National Archives last year presented “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” to explore government policy and food eaten by Americans, from seed distribution programs to school lunches. This exhibit inspired chef and restaurateur Jose Andres to open a pop-up restaurant in Washington that served historic American recipes.

As a cookbook author with a degree in Public History, I would like to further explore the ways that government policy and the local food movement intersect. What will happen to gardening as a symbol of American self-reliance and healthy food for children when Mrs. Obama leaves the White House? How can her legacy as unofficial vegetable gardener-in-chief continue? What will continue to encourage children to participate in growing and preparing their own food?

Of course, I’ll also continue to think up appealing ways to present kohlrabi, okra and other unusual vegetables to children and families. As the First Lady leads the way, eating vegetables has become newly patriotic after the Victory Gardens of the 20th century. I’m glad to give citizens around the country practical ways to take this message into their kitchens, but now I’d also like to do more to inform the public about how the history of gardening at the White House has relevance for food grown today.

~ Clara Silverstein


  1. The nod to Jefferson hints at how back the idea of a garden for Everyperson extends. Jefferson's vision for the growth of America, controlling and anti-urban though it was, emphasized small-scale farming as the most democratic of all professions. Cathy Stanton has done some great work on the waves of ideological gardening movements that have swept over the country for centuries. Hope she'll share a bit about that!

  2. I was headed sort of in this direction in my thoughts about Clara's post - it was actually the historical role of writers in disseminating and popularizing ideas about food reform and farm life that struck me in thinking about this project. I've been reading Dona Brown's "Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America," and she makes it very clear that writers have always played a really important role not only in reporting on what's happening in the various food and "back to the land" movements we've seen over time, but also creating those movements and ideas as well.

    So I'm wondering, Clara, how you see your own role here - i.e. what is the particular layer that you're adding to the story? And would you say your interest and training in public history plays into that in any way?