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American Grown: Guidance from the Garden

by Adrian Miller

July 5, 2012

Editor's Note: Adrian Miller, soul food scholar and former special assistant (Deputy Director of the Initiative for One America) to President Bill Clinton visited Charlotte earlier this spring and spoke at Johnson & Wales University, Uptown. Miller is former senior policy analyst in the administration of Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, where he spearheaded the state’s Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.

Those in the audience heard a tribute to the long history of African American chefs that have cooked for the first family in his talk entitled, “Home Cooking in the White House.” Miller is currently in the process of finishing his upcoming, as yet untitled book, a comprehensive history of soul food, published by the University of North Carolina Press slated for release in September of 2013.

Book information: American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. By Michelle Obama. Illustrated. 272 pp. Crown Publishers, $30.

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Don't be surprised if you find yourself humming Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" as I did while reading Michelle Obama's first book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. With very accessible prose and beautiful photography, Mrs. Obama's ambitious, and eclectic, book displays several of her talents since it is part memoir, part do-it-yourself ("DIY") garden guide, part advocacy effort, and part cookbook.

American Grown is ostensibly a complete account of the White House kitchen garden from its inception to its implementation. Yet, Mrs. Obama readily admits that the White House kitchen garden has a larger meaning. In the book's opening pages, she writes, "As both a mother and a first lady, I was alarmed by reports of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates and the dire consequences for our children's health. And I hoped this garden would help begin a conversation about this issue—a conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children." American Grown furthers that conversation and gives the reader plenty more to glean.

Since our republic's founding, first ladies have been somewhat constrained in how they burnish their reputations without upstaging their famous spouses. The safest path is to be really good at performing all of the ceremonial duties that come with being first lady, not the least of which is throwing a good party.

Most first ladies have chosen to excel at the role of "first hostess." Dolley Madison is the indisputable queen of this approach, having captivated Washington's high society, diplomatic corps and members of Congress during a good chunk of the nineteenth century. Jefferson, a widower, outsourced the ceremonial role to Dolley during his administration, and she happily helped her husband James while he was president.

Other first ladies decided to take up a cause. Caroline Harrison (married to President Benjamin Harrison) and Jacqueline Kennedy focused on renovating the White House. Lady Bird Johnson worked on beautifying America and Nancy Reagan strongly encouraged us to ‘just say no’ to drugs. A smattering of first ladies left their legacy via the written word by penning their memoirs (Julia Grant and every first lady from Pat Nixon to Laura Bush), publishing their White House diary (Lady Bird Johnson) or authoring a cookbook (Edith Wilson). Some, like Nancy Todd Lincoln and Bess Truman, kept a decidedly low public profile because they loathed the spotlight.

A select few first ladies decided to break the mold by multi-tasking several projects and initiatives, including elbowing their way into what was traditionally deemed a man's world—public policy. Eleanor Roosevelt actively engaged in policy issues (notably civil rights), traveled the world, and maintained a regular newspaper column. Hillary Clinton famously delved into health care reform, and wrote a couple of books during her tenure.

Mrs. Obama falls squarely into the Roosevelt/Clinton school of thinking, and American Grown demonstrates that she's managed to remain well-liked while expanding her portfolio.

American Grown begins with the actual story of the White House kitchen garden, and the entire book is sensibly organized by a chronological progression of the four seasons (beginning with spring). This helps the reader understand what gardening tasks need to be performed during different times of the year. However, it is not a true DIY guide. If you are an aspiring or novice gardener, American Grown will not teach you all that you need to know to start a garden from scratch. There is no convenient itemization of equipment, seeds and tools needed to get up-and-running, so the reader has to look elsewhere.

Once one has taken care of the initial garden set-up, American Grown provides a heavy dose of useful advice. An impressive collection of experts explains the intricacies of gardening, and their counsel is enhanced by effective illustrations and photographs of the garden's layout. Mrs. Obama also shares a number of personal anecdotes about the ups-and-downs of her journey through gardening.

What the book lacks in detailed, technical instruction, it makes up for considerably by immersing the reader in the feel for gardening.

As a memoir, American Grown dwells almost exclusively on Mrs. Obama's childhood. She writes about experiences that may seem foreign to children these days, particularly playing outside with the other neighborhood kids, and getting home-cooked meals with ingredients from the family's garden. Obama does pepper her book with a few contemporary stories about the first family, but these are short on juicy details.

Those looking for a peek into the Obamas' private life will go wanting. This is lamentable but understandable. In our currently cynical age, a first lady who writes a book while still actively disposing her official duties does so at her peril. Too many explicit mentions of her husband and kids could easily transform American Grown into a re-election campaign document or as a crass attempt to "cash in" on her office. For the record, all proceeds from American Grown will go the National Park Foundation that has official responsibility for maintaining all of the White House grounds, including the gardens. It also would be difficult for the first lady to put her family out there in full view with this book and then subsequently reclaim a modest zone of privacy for the first children.

Only the first lady and Bo, the first dog, get a lot of space in these pages. Still, it seems like a missed opportunity that we don't get to learn more about how this garden has actually influenced Mrs. Obama's table in the present as a different garden did in the past.

We also hear from members of the White House culinary team who have helped cultivate the garden. Sam Kass, the Obamas' personal chef, and Bill Yosses, the White House pastry chef relate their personal connection to the garden, and share their lessons learned from the children in the D.C. area who volunteered to help with the garden. The most poignant anecdotes come from Criseta Comerford, the White House's current Executive Chef, who shows how the garden's produce is incorporated into White House entertaining menus as well as the meals that she feeds her own family. Chef Comerford also gives excellent, practical advice on how to build a nutritious, health-conscious lunch for children that could be used in a school cafeteria or in the home. Her advice is accompanied by a nice photograph of Chef Comerford and her daughter spending quality time in their family kitchen while making a sweet potato dish. I wish that American Grown had packaged more, similar moments of the first family.

American Grown's meatiest portion weighs in with advocacy and goals. Though this section is chock-full of information and accomplishments, it doesn't read like a dry policy brief. Mrs. Obama sounds the alarm on childhood obesity, and we get a plethora of reasons for why the nation must act now. Mrs. Obama has recruited a lot of notable people to her cause, including Lieutenant General Mark Hertling of the U.S. Army who makes a national security case for ending childhood obesity. Gen. Hertling notes that in the past few years, an inordinate amount of young recruits can no longer pass the Army's Entry Physical Test. Most of the first lady's advocacy energy is focused on school lunches, and she's done much to begin altering the often-dreary landscape of the school cafeteria line. To this end, Mrs. Obama has enlisted the help of chefs (Chefs Move! to Schools), advocated for legislation (the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2011) and pushed a policy initiative called the Healthy Food Financing Initiative which she describes as a "combination of loans, grants, tax credits, and community economic development programs designed to fund new grocery stores, establish farmers' markets, and equip small retailers like corner stores to sell food." To buttress her case, Mrs. Obama profiles community activists in different sections of the country who are gardening at the grassroots level. We see how they respond to different challenges, and their stories will inspire anyone who wants to venture into community gardening.

Turning that inspiration into action is a little trickier. Though American Grown is very good about providing contact information for federal government sources on gardening, health and nutrition, the reader has to forage the Internet on their own in order to get contact information for the programs profiled in this book.

American Grown ends with a cookbook portion that provides recipes utilizing the vegetables grown for each particular season. Though we don't get a nutritional breakdown of each recipe, they predictably tend toward being health-conscious. Many recipes are meatless, and call for low-fat and low-sodium ingredients. The recipes are very straightforward with ingredients that, for the most part, are not too exotic. Some ingredients, though, will delight middle-class and affluent foodies while giving heartburn to lower-income home cooks. A few of the book's dishes call for whole-wheat pastas and bulgar wheat. The sweet potato quick bread recipe also calls for three different types of ginger (fresh, crystallized and ground). These foods are familiar to those who have access to higher-end grocery stores, but they may not be stocked at a typical neighborhood grocery store or in the inner city and rural areas. Reading the recipes got me wondering who is really meant to read this book.

The conventional wisdom on childhood obesity has coalesced on the point that this problem is particularly acute for poor families who don't typically have access to nutritious food from any kind of garden or nearby grocery store. Mrs. Obama further acknowledges throughout the book that the challenges to fighting childhood obesity are primarily two-fold: kids aren't active, and kids aren't eating well because their families have more incentive to eat convenience foods at meals instead of using fresh foods.

Poor families really need this book, but the cover price presents a real challenge. For those low-income families who manage to get a copy, there's more practical information and guidance about how to grow a garden than how to use a garden's harvest in the home. Sure there are great recipes and tips, but American Grown could do more to help cooks plan actual meals. A weekly or daily menu using the garden ingredients to build family meals would have been a nice addition.

American Grown does have another shortcoming that tends more towards the curious rather than the egregious. On several pages, White House assistant chefs are pictured doing the hard work of cultivating the garden along with Mrs. Obama, and Chefs Comerford, Kass and Yosses. Undoubtedly, these same assistant chefs had a hand in preparing the harvest for the table. Yet, they are anonymous because their names are neither listed in the captions beneath their photographs nor in the acknowledgements section at the book's end. Given the long, hidden legacy of assistant chefs in the White House, I would have liked for them to get a little love.

Overall, American Grown should satisfy those craving to know the story of the White House kitchen garden as revived by the Obamas and the garden's growing national influence. For those seeking a more penetrating look into the Obamas' private home life and eating habits, American Grown will leave you a little hungry until Mrs. Obama writes her memoirs.

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