Anybody who knows me well knows that I have a small obsession with antique cookbooks. One of my prized possessions, to be exact, is The White House Cookbook, which dates back to the Coolidge years (1903). In this and other cookbooks of the era, an unspoken reverence for food – and the laborious process of producing it – is woven throughout. There were well-defined traditions and a seasonality to what people cooked back then, from weeknight suppers to State dinners. People knew where their food came from in those days – from the humblest day-worker all the way up to the President of the United States.
Fast forward a hundred years, and we’re seeing a revival of food in the White House. Michelle Obama broke ground for her kitchen garden two years ago, and this year, is adding a historical element to the educational mix. She’s asked master horticulturist Peter Hatch to plant varieties of vegetables that President Jefferson cultivated in his own garden at Monticello. Jefferson’s Virginia garden, among the usual suspects, contained little-known veggie varieties like Cow’s Horn okra and Texas bird peppers. Carolina lima beans! He grew vegetables that brought with them a sense of place and held within them the history of a region. Historical traditions (ingredients and recipes, in the forefront of my mind) are ephemeral things, in the sense that they fade when no one carries on to the present. One of the things I think about most often is how to pluck the best parts of history for replanting in the present, both into the public consciousness and onto their dinner plate.
I feel very privileged to work for an organization with so many members working to preserve history and bring it forward into the present, from the ingredients that they choose to the way they run their restaurants to the recipes they choose to honor memories, tradition or artisan methods. I feel lucky to regularly visit with farmers who grow food conscientiously, with respect. I feel giddy every time saved seeds make the news. I am looking forward to seeing other ways that the White House kitchen garden sheds light on our country’s culinary history.
This post was inspired by Obama Foodorama’s post here: http://obamafoodorama.blogspot.com/2011/03/michelle-obama-re-plants-kitchen-garden.html
Jen Ede is Development and Marketing Associate at Chefs Collaborative.