The White House goes green

I’VE JUST heard exciting news that gives me hope for the world. Michelle Obama plans to cultivate an organic vegetable garden on the south lawn of the White House.

This will convey a strong message to the American people about the importance of the food they feed to their families. The organic garden will provide food for the first family’s meals and for formal dinners at the White House, but according to Michelle Obama its most important role is “to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables, at a time when obesity and diabetes are a national concern.”

Too much food is empty calories, filling but not nourishing, so this initiative is all the more important. More than 65% of the American population are overweight and 31% are obese and at risk of chronic diseases. The Obamas, we’re told, love Mexican food; so there will be lots of coriander, tomatoes, chillies and peppers, a terrific selection of greens, including my pin-up winter vegetable, kale and fresh herbs. There will be fresh berries for puddings, so the White House chefs will have fresh, beautiful produce to cook with — 55 varieties in total.

There will also be bee-hives. Word reached the Obamas that White House carpenter Charlie Brandt was also a beekeeper, so he will look after the two bee hives for the White House honey, an initiative that will encourage more people to keep bees.

There is a precedent. When Eleanor Roosevelt planted a vegetable garden during World War II, she inspired Victory Gardens around the country, emblems of self-sufficiency. A vegetable garden on the White House lawn is the brainchild of my friend, Alice Waters, owner of the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkley, California. Since 1971, Alice has served the fresh, seasonal produce of local farmers and food producers on her menu. For 15 years, she has dreamed of seeing an edible garden at the White House. When Al Gore lost the election in 2000, her hopes were dashed for a further eight years, but now they are becoming a reality.

Her passionate hope is that this initiative will inspire Americans, from coast to coast, to rediscover the joy of growing their own, especially in these challenging economic times.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and Rosie Boycott, chair of London Food, launched Capital Growth in November, 2008 to encourage Londoners to use every scrap of land and space to grow something edible.

This initiative was inspired by the Cuban experiment, during what they euphemistically called their special period, when blockades and trade restrictions imposed by the US and Russia caused drastic food shortages.

In these dire circumstances, Cubans relearned how to cultivate, and used every scrap of land in towns and cities to grow food and rear poultry and pigs. What was originally a desperate response to a crisis situation is now serving as inspiration to others.

Our own President Mary McAleese is well ahead — a true inspiration. Her vegetable garden at Áras an Uachtaráin continues to flourish. They also have hens, so our first lady can go to work on a beautiful, freshly laid egg whenever she fancies. Now is the time of the year to sow and plant, so take a look around your property. Is there space for a vegetable bed or even a couple, a few barrels or tubs, a window box?

Even a hanging basket can produce some salad leaves, or a few herbs for you to snip into your dishes. So, off to the local garden centre, buy a few packets of seeds, even a few cabbage plants and get them into the ground, and, remember, if there are kids around involve them also.

We just harvested a crop of cauliflower that was planted last June. They all came together, so I had what you might call a glut of cauliflower. We ate every scrap; I chopped the fresh green leaves and cooked those, as well as the white curd. Here are a few recipes that we enjoyed.


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