You probably missed this amid all the other breathless coverage and seemingly more weighty issues that surrounded Barack Obama's inauguration, but the Bushes left something behind when they cleared out. Actually it's a someone: executive chef Cristeta Comerford, who has headed the White House kitchen since 2005.
Comerford, 47, is the first woman and the first minority — she's a naturalized American citizen, born in the Philippines — to hold the job, since taking over for longtime White House chef Walter Scheib. Imagine a foodie version of the "Which breed of puppy will they choose?" frenzy and you get an idea of the months of speculation over which chef the Obamas would pick. Yet unlike the dog thing, the question of what's cooking in Obama's kitchen actually has a larger meaning. Here's why.
After all we heard over the last eight years about George W. Bush's love of lowbrow dishes like grilled cheese on Wonder Bread, BLTs and hot dogs, and his dislike of "anything green or wet," it wasn't surprising that hard-core foodies — most notably, sustainable food guru/chef Alice Waters and Gourmet magazine's Ruth Reichl — assumed the Obamas would choose a new chef, one who would not only make more responsible food choices for the First Family but bring a more public face to the White House kitchen. As food and cooking blogs obsessed over which celebrity chef the Obamas should choose, Waters and Reichl offered to serve as an informal "kitchen cabinet" to the Obamas, consulting on healthy eating and sustainable living, even calling for the creation of a White House vegetable garden.
Too bad they didn't know what they were talking about. Turns out Comerford, who started on a restaurant salad-prep station and later studied cooking in Europe, worked under the direction of now-former First Lady Laura Bush to serve healthful organic meals made with locally grown and sustainable ingredients in the People's House. And she'll be staying on to do the same for the Obamas.
Scheib, writing on the Obama Foodorama blog ("A daily diary of the Obama foodscape, one bipartisan byte at a time"), said there is even a small garden on the roof of the White House where some ingredients are grown. He's a little bit salty at the way Comerford was dissed, bellyaching about her being treated like "so much chopped liver." It's not entirely the foodies' fault, though, as the White House kitchen has no press office of its own and Comerford is notoriously press-shy. And much of what Waters, Reichl and other food writers are craving — that is, a conspicuous attempt to eat healthy and an explicit approval of the local-food movement coming from the top down — could be good for all of us.
England's Prince Charles has made the promotion of organic farming and sustainable living part of his life's mission (albeit a mission carried out from the splendor of a royal estate). He took a cue from Paul Newman and created a line of organic food and beauty-care products, with profits going to charity, and it's worked. Just think: If that creep can become a global hero to the organic/sustainable movement, imagine the effect the Obamas could have as a family.
How about not just an expanded White House garden, but an accompanying website telling us what's growing in the president's garden, how it's being grown, what seasonal ingredients are on the table and how we can do it, too? With young children in the White House now, there's a real opportunity to reach out to kids. No, we don't need a daily diary of what Malia and Sasha have for breakfast, but as a parent I'd be interested to hear from Comerford about how she'll create healthy menus the girls actually want to eat. And recipes wouldn't hurt.
A few months back, I wrote a piece on the PB&J Campaign, which encourages people to replace one of their daily meals with something non-animal-based, like peanut butter and jelly. The idea is to help folks think about how small changes in our lives can add up to larger movements. One of the things that struck me was how many questions people have about how to make changes toward healthier living and eating — where to begin, what to do, where to look for local produce, what "organic" actually means.
It might be a bit much to expect the White House kitchen to become a kind of nutritional bully pulpit, as some have suggested. The food police are always a bummer. But it strikes me that this is an opportunity for two great tastes to come together, to borrow the old Reese's Cup slogan. If Obama can blend green, healthy policies with the symbolism of actual green, healthy living, it could the greatest thing since chocolate met peanut firstname.lastname@example.org