Although foodies everywhere have applauded the First Lady's commitment to healthy eating in the form of a widely-publicized White House organic garden, food writer Amanda Hesser takes issue with Michelle's stated disinterest in that food's preparation.
When The Washington Post asked Mrs. Obama for her favorite recipe, she replied, "You know, cooking isn't one of my huge things." And last month, when a boy who was visiting the White House asked her if she liked to cook, she replied: "I don't miss cooking. I'm just fine with other people cooking." Though delivered lightheartedly, and by someone with a very busy schedule, the message was unmistakable: everyday cooking is a chore...Both times Mrs. Obama missed a great opportunity to get people talking about a crucial yet neglected aspect of the food discussion: cooking. Because terrific local ingredients aren't much use if people are cooking less and less; cooking is to gardening what parenting is to childbirth.
Now, the objections to this statement are obvious: Hesser (herself a busy working mom) acknowledges that the First Lady is a busy woman with a lot of important things on her plate, and it would be disingenuous to pretend that her life, or cooking opportunities, are like that of the average American. While food and cooking, to someone in the food world, is at this point not a gendered issue, to Michelle Obama it's probably not incidental to distance herself from generations of recipe-swapping First Ladies who aligned themselves firmly with the domestic. And because Mrs. Obama does not cook much these days does not imply unilateral scorn - Mrs. Obama has mentioned cooking in the past, they've hired a chef well-versed in organic and sustainable cooking, and this year's Easter Egg Roll incorporated a cooking class for kids. A garden can teach a lot about nutrition and the environment even to those who can't or don't have the opportunity to cook. And Mrs. Obama clearly enjoys and appreciates good, healthy food - perhaps as important as anything. Besides, should a First Lady have to censor her every word? Be an example and a role model at every turn? At the end of the day, probably a lot of people can relate to a First Lady who doesn't always talk from the script - and doesn't cook.
But that would, of course, be Hesser's point - that too many people can relate. And that every word, from someone so admired and imitated, is an opportunity. One could certainly argue that the food issue is one the Obamas have been strong-armed - and Anthony Bourdain and his Waters-hating ilk would likely argue just that. But having taken on an issue, one must see it through. And having acknowledged a crisis in our nation's diet, one can't separate the issue of cooking from it. Cooking is essential to changing the nation's habits - locavore restaurants are great, but it's not Blue Hill that's going to feed the man on the street. The issue here is a tricky one, though, because Mrs. Obama has to tread a fine line: while there's nothing remotely elitist or luxurious about scratch cooking to its champions, the simple truth is that this is far from a universal view, and Mrs. Obama would risk just as much criticism from devoting time to, say, a course of cooking classes, as by her current flippancy. Hesser suggests that watching the First Lady master the preparation of food would be a great example for the country, and it would - but if it's that important, it would be nice if her husband could be in there with her occasionally - and would do quite a bit to un-load the issue.
The Commander In Chef [NY Times]