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Arugula Shines At White House Dinner

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 25, 2009

The White House hasn’t announced what will be on the President’s Thanksgiving table but the menu for President Obama’s first State Dinner included a first course with “White House Arugula” — meaning it had been grown in the White House garden.

The First Lady, Michelle Obama, worked with the chefs to develop “a menu that reflects the best of American cuisine, continues this White House’s commitment to serving fresh, sustainable and regional food, and honors the culinary excellence and flavors that are present in Indian cuisine.”

It also turned out that “The desserts were garnished with mint and lemon verbena grown in the White House garden.” Gift bags included “a jar of honey from White House beehives.” Additionally, “Locally grown magnolias lined the dinner tent.”

The inclusion of arugula grown at the White House brought a chuckle. After all, then candidate Obama got in a bit of trouble while campaigning at a “Rural Issues Forum” he held in Illinois. The New York Times put it this way:

One line that landed a little flat, though, was when Mr. Obama sympathetically noted that farmers have not seen an increase in prices for their crops, despite a rise in prices at the supermarket.

“Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” the senator said. “I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff.”

The state of Iowa, for all of its vast food production, does not have a Whole Foods, a leading natural and organic foods market. The closest? Omaha, Minneapolis or Kansas City.

Mr. Obama, perhaps sensing a lack of reaction from the crowd, moved along to the next topic. After all, he never claimed to be a farming expert.

The exchange suggested some distance between candidate Obama and the American heartland, much as Michael Dukakis got in trouble during his ill-fated campaign for the President when he suggested growing endive as an alternative to grain crops.

Although many in the industry worked hard to get the President to establish a White House garden and saw it as a big win for the industry, we never got aboard that train.

We see American agriculture as, primarily, a high volume producer. When the First lady talks about eating “regional food” as if there is some special virtue in that, we see that as a defacto message to other countries not to buy our agricultural exports.

Even domestically, it is not obvious to us why the president of all the people and all the states should not be neutral as to whether the apples are from Virginia, New York, Michigan, Washington state or other places.

It is not that we opposed the garden, although we didn’t like all that talk about the garden being “organic” when it couldn’t possibly meet that standard for at least three years.

What we actually hoped for was that the Obama’s were doing it to teach their children, Malia and Sasha, what is really involved in growing, which is mostly a lot of hard work while the produce gets eaten by bugs and creatures of every type.

We thought we might hear some praise for the farmers and the hard work they put in and great difficulties they endure to produce food for us all.

Other than the occasional photo-op, though, it doesn’t seem like the Obama’s are actually maintaining the garden. We assume it is mostly maintained by the White House gardeners, which makes us think they could have bought the arugula cheaper at Safeway — or even Whole Foods.

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