When I buy a cookbook, I am always drawn to the pictures. When I read a non-fiction book, I want a good story. American Grown, by First Lady Michelle Obama, is both–it’s an interesting hybrid of a gardening, cooking and history book, chronicling the story of the White House Garden, the importance of growing and eating fresh food.
The book trails the development of the White House kitchen garden through its inception and planting in April of 2009 to the seasonal bounty produced on the grounds.
This is not the first time there has been a garden on the White House. There have been some famous presidential gardeners, including Thomas Jefferson. The last time food was grown on the White House grounds was during the Franklin Roosevelt administration. This iteration not only produces food for the First Family and guests, but has also captured the imagination of community gardeners and school children across the country.
Then there are the bees. So much emphasis has been placed on the growing of the herbs and vegetables in the garden, yet the unsung stars of the show may just be the story of the bees, the hives and the honey. According to Mrs. Obama, they harvested 140 pounds of honey in the first year, and in 2011, 225 pounds.
The book hit home for me, as my first visit to the White House was to visit the gardens with the Food and Community (then Food and Society Policy) Fellows. A member of our class of fellows, Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, had developed a campaign during the last presidential election to encourage the winner to plant a garden on the White House lawn. Seeing his dream realized was a tremendous experience, and seeing it all documented in a book was pure magic for me. While I can’t claim to be a proficient gardener, reading this book made me feel that anything is possible. A real feast for the gardener’s eye is in the sections that lay out how the White House Garden team plants food according to the season, complete with detailed, hand drawn diagrams.
The thing that makes American Grown so engaging is its accessibility. The book skillfully reaches you wherever you are in the good food movement. If you are a history buff like me, there is lots of narrative and photos that document not only the First Lady’s journey from growing up in Chicago to stories. The book is peppered with stories of community gardens that are using the tradition of growing to bring their communities together. And as America debates the importance of healthy school food, this book gives a brief history of U.S. School Gardens that go all the way back to 1891 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, according to the First Lady.
And it goes beyond what’s growing on Pennsylvania Avenue to the ways that community gardeners are approaching growing and cooking fresh. My favorite part of the book is definitely the recipes that clearly send a message that fresh food can also be great tasting. There are recipes from each season, from a spring pea salad to a summer corn soup to a hearty linguine with a bacon mushroom sauce. It is a snapshot of gardening creativity and self-determination that reaches across cultures. Because of the vibrant photos it could have a place of honor on the coffee table, or as a reference for cooks and gardeners.
The book not only speaks to what’s possible, but it also does real time work. All proceeds go to support the National Parks Foundation.