Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

Hoping for change

Will there be progressive improvements in the Obama kitchen?

January 19, 2009

I do not watch "60 Minutes," but I am giddy with delight when I see the video online: Barack and Michelle in their own kitchen, cooking with Malia and Sasha.

I want to know more about this new President and his wife, and the first thing I want to know is: Are they friendly to sustainably grown, organic foods? Is there any way, despite the corn-connected Secretary of Agriculture candidate, that Obama’s administration will begin to stem the tide of genetically modified crops and the united states of monocultures that we’ve been building, lo, these last 60 years?

I have Hope and believe in Change, and perhaps I am too optimistic; I have celebrated with my children and I have jumped up and down upon his election and I have counted the days until the inauguration.

But lately I have quieted my enthusiasm, as my brilliant light of promise has dimmed. I have read the bio of Tom Vilsack and I have feared greatly his reported coziness with Monsanto, his eagerness to support cellulosic ethanol, his general disagreement with all of my ideal agricultural policies.

But maybe it’s true that this was a political appointment. And perhaps Michelle and Barack soak whole grains for breakfast cereal and eat only wild-caught salmon with seasonal vegetables for dinner. Maybe, secretly, they drink raw milk.

After watching the video, I fear that this is beyond unlikely. President Obama makes tuna fish with plastic squirter bottles of mayonnaise and mustard (name brands both), the ones that are, in my opinion, the least sustainable; this sort of plastic bottle is recyclable, but the packages are smaller, making more waste, and the squeezable tops must be thrown away.

He also chops gherkins and mixes them with tuna fish before spreading the mixture on supermarket bread.

This “recipe” is sure to endear the Obamas to the middle-American sorts who will see that he is not fancy, that he cooks chili and cheese toast for his girls and that he is not too precious to eat a regular tuna sandwich for lunch.

It does not endear him to me.

I do not expect Barack Obama to get out his mortar and pestle to grind mustard seeds for his sandwich, although I’ve been doing that myself lately (it’s a great way to work out my anger at certain news reports). I don’t really imagine that Michelle Obama bakes her own bread or pickles her own gherkins (though I don’t know why she can’t find the time, what with the president-elect taking the girls to school and all).

I could even forgive the choice of tuna fish, which has enough mercury in it to take your temperature. (Wouldn’t sardines have been a better option? They’re so heart-healthy and generally low in toxins.) Tuna is a sometimes food.

I just wanted the barest whisper of the ideal sustainability-loving locavore’s kitchen. Maybe a loaf of artisanal bread he’d picked up at the bakery. A glass jar of mayonnaise without sweetener. A snack bought in bulk in the background. One, just one, organic ingredient.

Instead, all I can see is plastic-wrapped bread on the counter and a little wee box of Sunmaid raisins — single-serving size — on the counter. I did not find the little window of Hope for which I’d yearned, the spark of food resistance in an otherwise culturally typical middle-class, middle-America, convenience-food-dependent kitchen.

Instead of depending upon this man, this soon-to-be Mr. President, for my food salvation, I’ll have to depend on myself. And on the thousands upon thousands like me who care about this land, who want to see the purple mountain majesties above the plain fruited with a variety of sustainably grown crops, those who’d like Yankee Doodle to call himself handmade pasta, those who would hear the bombs bursting in air and hope that the sound isn’t crop dusters spraying chemicals.

We’re all hoping that the Star-Spangled Banner will wave o’er the land of the free (range chickens) and the home of the brave (farmers who stand up to regulations unfairly penalizing small dairy operations). It’s up to us now.

At least Michelle appeared to have recycled the tuna can.

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1. by Fasenfest on Jan 20, 2009 at 6:05 AM PST

Yes, exactly Mama. Thousands and thousands of individuals hoping, but not waiting, for a change. And when the consumer culture becomes a producing culture (producing our own vegetable gardens, making our own bread, pasta, canned foods, yada, yada), we (or many more of us) will reach for the types of ingredients and “value added” products that might well change the way american eats, shops and supports sustainable agriculture.

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