On the President’s Plate

By Steven Gdula

When Thomas Jefferson said to understand a society you had to “drive the people out of their hovels … look into their pots … and eat their bread” — an observation many historians associate with the French Revolution — he was drawing parallels between politics and the dinner plate. The foods eaten by a country, a state, a city, a town, and even a family of five are all indicative of what’s happening in a culture at any given time.

Jefferson knew the hard times befalling the French, or any country’s citizens, were reflected by the contents of their kitchens. Ever mindful of that end, Jefferson sought to find ways to better the lives of his constituents. Monticello curator Susan Stein has said that for Jefferson there was no thing more beneficial to a society than the introduction of a new plant. When dispatching Lewis and Clark on their cross-continental journey, the president gave them specific instructions to make meticulous notes on the edible plants they encountered. Jefferson’s own land was planted with over 250 varieties of herbs, vegetables and fruits, all of which he cultivated with an interest in improving American lives.

Had he held office today, Jefferson’s epicurean pursuits would have branded him as a “foodie.” Famous for setting an amazing spread in the White House, his interest in food went far beyond simply feeding the people he’d gathered round his table. Borrowing from Brillat-Savarin, the French gourmand immortalized for opining that people are what they eat, Jefferson knew that the contents of one’s larder had an enormous influence on the quality of one’s life.

I was reminded of Jefferson’s love of food when then-president elect Obama showed up at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington, D.C., institution. It was a smart move on the future leader’s part. By choosing Ben’s, Obama showed that he wasn’t fussy about what he ate—a good meal is a good meal, period, whether it’s served over a counter or served on white linens—because if there’s one thing some Americans distrust, it’s elitism when it comes to food.

And this distrust might prove to be one of the biggest challenges in overhauling the way the country thinks about farming and agriculture, even if the suggestions are ultimately in the best interest of both the people growing, and the people eating, the food. Many of us would like to see rules in place that benefit the environment as well as the economy without hurting the already struggling American farmer. But with so much suspicion and resistance surrounding the push for Americans to eat local, let alone organic foods, President Obama could use the White House lawn as a way to lead by example. The organization Eat The View has been seeking signatures for its petition that asks the new president to break ground on a new, organic garden within his first 100 days in office. The reason? To show the rest of the country his love of good food includes eating responsibly, which translates to a commitment to the environment and to sustainable farming practices. As envisioned by Eat The View, the food grown in the Obama’s new backyard would not only feed the White House, it would also provide food for local food banks that help the needy. The folks at Eat The View have called upon the president “to replant” a “Victory Garden,” adding that the “White House is America’s house and should serve as a model at a time of crisis.”

While no one is expecting President Obama to add Farmer In Chief to his list of duties, it should be noted that the White House grounds have been planted in the past. The Carters and the Clintons both had gardens that quietly served their kitchens, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous Victory Garden inspired a nation during the dark times of World War II. By referencing the Victory Garden in their petition, the people at Eat The View are signaling that the way we eat and grow our food is as much a responsibility of the patriot as any other type of national loyalty.

With responsibility being the hallmark of Obama’s inauguration, the issue of the president’s kitchen becomes very important. If we are to change how we think about food we need more than just words. We need action and we need example. How the policies of this administration will address the issues facing America’s farmers, grocers and homemakers is a work in progress. But as he calls upon all of us to serve our country as best we can, President Obama could influence millions with something as simple as what he eats for dinner. We’ve already seen that: Lines stretched out the door of Ben’s Chili Bowl and down U Street in DC days after pictures of his visit hit the media. A similar photo of our President tending a small family garden could really plant the seeds for change.

Steven Gdula is a writer in San Francisco, Calif.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2009

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