Why no one knows where the White House food comes from

April 22, 2014

While the Obamas have brought their own vision of healthy eating and exercise to the White House, each first family--and the people who work for them-- shape the place. Get it? Shape?


U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (C) pumps her arms after sharing a high-five with children after reading to them from the book "My Garden" during the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington April 21, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Here are 10 things you (probably) didn't know about what's consumed, and burned off, inside the White House.

1. Hillary Clinton considered having a kitchen garden at the start of her husband's first term. The then First Lady interviewed several candidates for the job of White House executive chef, including Frank Ruta, who served as assistant chef  for a total of 11 years under Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Ruta, who lives in northern Virginia and has a large back garden, was asked by her, "How do you see that translating into the White House?" Ruta said he and Clinton discussed the idea of having a more practical garden at the White House, but he didn't get the job, and it took Barack Obama's election to translate that idea into a reality.

2. There was a Weight Watchers group among White House staff during President George W. Bush's first term. Spending long hours in the same office with limited food options often translates into weight gain. So a group of staffers would hold regular Weight Watcher sessions, according to former Vice President Cheney aide Brian McCormack.

3. George H.W. Bush would come into the kitchen to snack and gab. For the most part, what the president and his family eat is determined by the first lady. But, "President Bush was a little bit more involved in the food," Ruta recalled. He loved shad and shad roe when it was in season, and was comfortable chatting with the staff. "He would come into the kitchen and eat some nuts," Ruta said. "He was very down to earth."

4.  Nancy and Ronald Reagan put exercise equipment in the residence. Everyone thinks of Michelle and Barack Obama as serious fitness enthusiasts, but the Reagans put some weights and gym equipment in the residence so they could work out. It was the '80s after all -- Jazzercise and all that.

5. During the Carter era, the staff locked up the cookies at night. Ann Amernick, who worked as a contractor assisting White House executive chef Roland Mesnier between 1979 and 1980, remembered not only making Tollhouse cookies and pies for the Carters, but locking up the cookie cabinet before leaving for the evening.

6. White House food policy adviser Sam Kass saved Thomas Jefferson's fig tree from the compost heap. Kass, who has overseen the kitchen garden from its inception in 2009, was particularly proud of a Marseilles fig tree that came from the garden at Monticello. He checked on it almost daily after it was planted, but one day he came down and it was missing. He realized that one of the White House staffers who had volunteered to weed the garden must had inadvertently pulled it out. While he replanted it, "For a year it was mad at us and it didn't grow." But now it's thriving.

7. First ladies often ask the staff to cook family recipes. While the White House kitchen prepares meals based on what's in season, they also pay attention to the first family's likes and dislikes. And plenty of first ladies, including Rosalynn Carter, would hand over family recipes so the staff could make them familiar dishes.

8. The White House keeps its food suppliers' identities secret. Ever vigilant, the White House will not disclose where they source their meals so they can't be targeted and put the first family's health in danger. This even applies to guest chefs like Rick Bayless, who prepared the 2010 state dinner with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. He asked to prepare a couple of sauces in advance and have them shipped to be tested, but the White House said no -- so he and his crew had to come to D.C. two days early to prepare  them on site.

9. Nancy Reagan's tendency to diet was exaggerated. Ruta, who cooked for the Reagans for years, said that just because she often liked to start her lunch with a simple broth didn't mean she counted every calorie. "I think it's a fallacy to say she would eat something akin to a grape," he said.

10. "Chocolate Freedom" is still on the menu at the White House mess. When chocolate cakes with molten centers became hip, the U.S. Navy chefs at the White House mess wanted to reverse engineer the restaurant treat so they could serve it themselves. They managed to do it -- and you can still order it at the mess, even now, as long as you place your order at the beginning of the meal so they have time to bake it.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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