first garden: the white house garden and how it grew by robbin gourley

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

This brand new picture book about Michelle Obama’s world-famous White House kitchen garden is the perfect way to celebrate the growing season. Grab your trowels and dig it!

I’ve been a Robbin Gourley fan ever since I read and reviewed her first picture book, Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie (Clarion, 2009), a story about Virginia chef Edna Lewis. Gourley has also published two self-illustrated cookbooks and is a proponent of the field-to-table philosophy of healthy eating. In First Garden, she describes how Mrs. Obama, the White House kitchen staff, and students from a local elementary school turned an 1100-square-foot plot of land on the South Lawn into a flourishing garden which provides fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs for the First Family and staff, White House guests, and even homeless men and women at a D.C. shelter.

We see how in March 2009 they prepared the soil, planted seedlings (some of the seeds came from plants first grown two hundred years ago in Jefferson’s Monticello garden), implemented pest control, watered, nurtured and finally harvested the produce. A beehive was also installed, the first in White House history. In August, Mrs. Obama hosted a harvest party, where the student gardeners, along with White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford, Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, and Assistant Chef Sam Kass, cut lettuces, picked peas and berries, prepared a salad, decorated cupcakes and enjoyed a scrumptious picnic table feast.


Over the summer, the First Garden produced more than a thousand pounds of food, and the bees produced one hundred and thirty-four pounds of honey — roughly eleven gallons.

But of course, no beets, as per President Obama’s request. ☺

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you can’t have your cookie and eat it too

~ This is the first in a series of posts about Presidential Food.

“If we work together, then everyone can eat our cookies,” said Michelle to Cindy.

For the past four presidential elections, Family Circle magazine has asked its readers to vote for their favorite potential first lady cookie recipe in order to predict who will go to the White House. So far, the poll has been right every time.

Laura Bush won the last two bake-offs with her Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk and Texas Governor’s Mansion Cowboy cookies, and before that, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Chocolate Chip recipe was the overwhelming favorite (see all recipes here).

So what’s on the platter for 2008?

We’ve got Cindy McCain’s Oatmeal Butterscotch battling against Michelle Obama’s Shortbread. But alas, even a simple Cookie Bake-off has been tainted by the rigors of this rough and tough election.

Shortly after Cindy’s recipe first appeared back in June, astute readers complained that it was identical to one on the Hershey’s website. Angry cries of plagiarism echoed in kitchens across America, casting doubt on Cindy’s integrity (she said she got the recipe from a friend).

At first I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Family Circle had asked for a favorite recipe, not an original one. The average person gets recipes all the time from friends and family, never really knowing the exact source. So, in theory, perhaps Cindy did get her recipe from a friend, who maybe got it from Hershey’s or anywhere else. This happens all the time.

When it comes to recipes, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

But that was before I read about the fiasco in April, when several recipes labeled as supposed “family favorites” appeared on the McCain campaign website. These turned out to have been ganked from the Food Network by a McCain intern, and were removed after numerous complaints.

Yes, it’s only a silly magazine poll, just a pleasant diversion designed to increase Family Circle’s readership. I doubt many people actually believe Cindy spends her Sunday afternoons baking cookies for her family. Still, I can’t help but wonder why she or her staff didn’t bother to double check sources for her cookie recipe in the wake of the previous debacle. It’s like they’re thinking, “those dumb housewives who read the magazine won’t know the difference.” Way to go! Insult the very people you’re trying to impress.

While Cindy got her hand caught in the cookie jar, Hillary Clinton has burned a batch or two. You may remember the flack she received right after Bill was elected governor of Arkansas, when she said she’d rather have a career than “stay at home and bake cookies.” She conveniently changed her tune in the 1992 presidential election, touting her chocolate chip recipe and passing out cookies to the super delegates in hopes of getting the housewife vote. Still, after this year’s historic campaign, she’s left no doubt that she’s one tough cookie.


I find it interesting how “political” cookies have become recently, how “vital” they are for a first lady’s resume. They can be used to put down homemakers and stay-at-home mothers, implying that such people have no brains for “real” careers — and yet a batch of cookies is quickly whipped up to garner votes. And who’s to say just because someone doesn’t bake cookies they don’t have family values or are the epitome of wholesomeness?

As for Michelle, she claims she got her recipe from Malia and Sasha’s godmother, freely admitting that she isn’t one to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. It’s shortbread jazzed up with Amaretto, orange and lemon zest, and samples appeared on all the pillows of Democratic Conventioneers staying at the Denver Marriott City Center back in August. A nice touch, and a personalized recipe that was properly credited. Not so much to ask.

Voting is over for now, and Family Circle will announce the winner on November 1st. The online tally presently shows Cindy McCain in the lead (yikes)! These votes will be combined with mail-ins solicited by the print magazine.

Meanwhile, why not check out Presidential Cookies* by Bev Young (Presidential Publications, 2005)? It contains favorite cookie recipes from all our presidents and first ladies, with fascinating anecdotes about dining in the White House. I’m anxious to test Martha Washington’s jumbals, Mary Todd Lincoln’s gingerbread men, Nancy Reagan’s Vienna bars, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s honey drops.

No competition or spin. Just some tasty history appropriate for the whole family.

*For tempting photos and comments on all the presidential cookie recipes, visit this blog.

Come November, which way will the cookie crumble?

Egads, bring on the shortbread!!



“Recipegate” was first reported by The Huffington Post, which has published several pieces on the subject.

Cookie Contest photos from the website, which includes Family Circle magazine.

Hillary cartoon from Creators Syndicate.