Post-Modern Food Fetish

I got a good laugh reading this Slate article last night about the First Family’s new vegetable garden on the White House lawn. What struck me most was the article’s sub-title: “Of all the reasons to plant a garden, free food may be the worst.” The author, Jennifer Reese, quotes California cuisine guru Alice Waters praising the stunt. “To have this sort of ‘victory’ garden, this message goes out that everyone can grow a garden and have free food,” said Waters.

Reese doesn’t countenance that kind of, shall we say, natural fertilizer:

Gardens and the food they produce are anything but free, and to suggest otherwise is romantic pastoral nonsense. … It takes many, many hours of toil before you harvest enough “free” eggplant and bell peppers to make a bowl of ratatouille. Though I doubt the Obamas will experience much of this, gardening is incredibly messy, ruins your hands, wears holes in the knees of your jeans, ends up costing 40 times more than you think it will, sucks up whole weekends in a single gulp, takes over your dreams, and frequently breaks your heart.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania — spitting distance from the West Virginia border — amidst mile after mile of dairy and truck farms. My own parents were not farmers. But, as children of the Depression, they tried to save money any way they could, and they kept several vegetable gardens that in any given year dwarfed the land surface area of my first three homes combined. That, in turn, meant dozens upon dozens of hours in the spring, summer, and fall for Dad, Mom, my siblings and me preparing seed beds and planting, pulling and hoeing weeds, and picking beans, peas, tomatoes, squash, sweet corn, lettuce, parsley, onions, carrots, parsnips, beets, peppers, and various fruits and berries. Worst was the back-breaking work of digging and harvesting row after row after row of potatoes.

To a pre-teen and then teenage kid, that sort of work seemed to be the worst possible way to spend a spring weekend or summer afternoon. But, my family were pikers compared to those of many of the kids I went to school with. People who actually farm for a living have it far far worse — up before dawn to milk the cows, then off to school, and immediately back home to help with another milking. Indeed, there’s very little that’s romantic about keeping a big backyard garden, and less still about the actual practice of producing meaningful amounts of food. But, of course, last Thursday’s photo op may be the last time any member of the First Family has to actually do it. Reese writes, “By Mrs. Obama’s own admission, the White House vegetable patch will be tended mostly by the White House staff.” It would, in fact, be good for this country’s kids to know more about where their food comes from. But, the First Lady’s Potemkin Garden certainly won’t teach them.