Like farmers eyeing the sky for a welcome rain cloud, people have been peering through the White House fence at the organic kitchen garden, searching for signs of activity.
During the Obama administration, the garden’s heirloom vegetables and stream of visiting chefs and schoolchildren became a stage set for Michelle Obama, who built her legacy on promoting good cooking, healthful eating and exercise. The 2,800-square-foot collection of raised beds became such a potent political symbol that after the fall election, protesters brandished signs demanding that the new administration keep its hands off their garden.
To the great relief of chefs and other supporters of the garden, Melania Trump has announced that she will keep it going. But they are still waiting for more definitive signs of how the Trumps will feed themselves and their guests, and whether they will set — as previous administrations have — a culinary example for the nation.
By virtue of tradition and archaic gender roles, the complex work of managing food for the White House has fallen to the first lady. But Melania Trump has no plans to move to Washington until the summer and has said little publicly about what she expects or wants from the cooking and entertaining staff.
“Without a hands-on first lady, they’re just pumping out food and seeing what the reaction is,” said Adrian Miller, a lawyer turned food writer who was a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and whose new book, “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet,” examines the role African-Americans have played in every White House kitchen.
“Usually, the food suffers when the first lady is uninterested,” Miller added. “Eleanor Roosevelt was a great example. The food was so bad people actually thought about eating first before going to the White House.”
Melania Trump only recently brought on additional staff members to help arrange state dinners and other official meals at the White House, the first of which was the recent black-tie Governors Ball. In past administrations, details down to the provenance of the flatware were made public. Not so this year. However, The New York Times obtained a menu: East Coast salmon and a salad of spring peas with pickled ramps, roasted rib-eye steaks from Virginia and Boston cream pie with vanilla ice cream.
The first couple prefers entertaining at Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s resort in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump, a bacon-and-eggs man who likes his steaks well done and perceives fast food as both efficient and sanitary, takes some of his meals in the White House mess, a small staff dining hall near the Situation Room in the West Wing. Melania Trump, who had a robust career in modeling, is a champion of drinking water and eating a lot of fruit.
The first person she hired was Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who as senior adviser will help set the first lady’s agenda and fill her staff. Winston Wolkoff, a New York party planner and former Vogue publicist, agreed to forward to Melania Trump a list of questions about her vision for food and entertaining at the White House, but she did not respond.
The president has, of course, the power to set food policy for the entire nation. Donald Trump clearly understands the theatrical and symbolic power of food. During the campaign, he declared his preference for Kentucky Fried Chicken and taco bowls — the latter, apparently, as a way to appeal to Hispanic voters. He has said that there will be no dinners honoring heads of state as long as the United States has a trade deficit, and that if the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, made a state visit, he would serve him a Big Mac instead of the Colorado lamb with garlic fried milk and baby broccoli that the leader ate with President Barack Obama.
Trump keeps copies of menus from important events, including the card from his January lunch with the British prime minister, Theresa May, which featured his favorite wedge salad with blue cheese, beef ribs and salted crème brûlée.
Cultural pundits have long debated whether the food at the White House shapes how the nation eats, or vice versa.
There is evidence for both. Mamie Eisenhower, a military wife enamored of the convenience foods popular in the 1950s, oversaw a thrifty White House kitchen, demanding that the staff make smart use of leftovers. Jacqueline Kennedy hired a French chef and remade White House dining, though public opinion forced her to start serving American wine and writing menus in English rather than French. Ronald and Nancy Reagan helped popularize elegant dining and Jelly Bellies, while George H.W. and Barbara Bush favored casual dining and pork rinds.
In the kitchen
Melania Trump is under no obligation to retain the current White House chef, Cristeta Comerford, or its pastry chef, Susie Morrison, the first women to hold those positions. But there is little indication that their jobs are in peril.
Their employment could depend on how well they get along with Anna Cristina Niceta Lloyd, known as Rickie, named as social secretary on Feb. 17. Niceta Lloyd, an account executive for a Washington caterer, helped coordinate the traditional lunch after Donald Trump’s swearing-in. She will oversee social events like the Easter Egg Roll, and help plan state dinners and other official meals, working with the White House chief usher, the State Department and Comerford.
Niceta Lloyd did not respond to a request for an interview, and it is not clear how much of a hand she will have in planning official menus. In the past, chefs have tried out dishes for a state dinner at a tasting hosted by the first lady. In the Obama administration, that menu would sometimes include specific vegetables grown for the occasion.
In the garden
The kitchen garden, which has produced 2,000 pounds of food a year, planted a flag for the farmers’ market crowd. Its bounty became diplomatic gifts, with Barack Obama handing out honey from the hives, tea bags made from chamomile and carved wooden boxes of seeds, one of which he gave to Pope Francis.
Although a large garden paving stone bears Michelle Obama’s name and her call to grow a healthier nation for America’s children, there is no reason Melania Trump couldn’t put her own stamp on the garden, said George Ball, the chairman and chief executive of the Burpee seed company. His company and the Burpee Foundation have pledged $2.5 million to the National Park Foundation to keep the garden tended for at least 17 years.
He has urged Melania Trump to turn the garden into a showplace for Slovenian produce, the star of which would be the Raka red onion. It is a hybrid that her maternal grandfather created by crossbreeding an Egyptian red onion with a local Slovenian onion from the town of Ptuj. It is named after his home village, which is known for its onions.
Melania Trump, whose mother left her work harvesting those onions for a job in a textile mill, does not appear to be particularly connected to her agricultural roots. But Ball plans to have seeds imported from Slovenia to present to her by the summer, and hopes he can persuade the first family to embrace vegetables, a point he has made in the opinion pages of some daily newspapers.
“You have a very high-pressure job so, Mr. Trump, you will get far more nutrition from more fresh vegetables,” he said in an interview.
Tanya Steel, the editorial director of the media company Clean Plates, who created a series of Kids’ State Dinners at the White House, said healthful eating should remain a theme under the new administration. “I can see it mapping beautifully if they are really focused on making America great again,” she said. “There isn’t any reason that healthy eating can’t be a bipartisan effort.”
Sam Kass, Barack Obama’s senior policy adviser for nutrition, cooked for the first family and was executive director for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. He doesn’t anticipate a vegetable-forward administration.
“I don’t expect to see President Trump expounding the value of spinach and broccoli,” he said.
But he is not worried about how changes at the White House will affect the American diet. “This country is already changing,” he said. “We are demanding better food and healthier food. Even on a policy level, I’m not too concerned.”
The following White House Kitchen recipes were created during the time the Obamas were in residence and reflected their desire for healthy family eating.
Julie Hirschfeld Davis of the New York Times and Suzanne Boyle of the Belleville News-Democrat contributed to this story.
Crispy Sweet Potato Fries
1 pound sweet potatoes and/or carrots
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour or all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons water
1 cup fine dry bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly brush a 15-by-10-by-1-inch baking pan with olive oil.
Peel vegetables and cut into thin wedges that are 3 to 4 inches long. Toss with 2 teaspoons of oil. Place the vegetables on the prepared pan and roast them 10 minutes. Remove from oven. Transfer vegetables to a tray to cool until they can be handled (about 10 minutes).
2. While vegetables are cooling, in a shallow bowl, mix together the flour and salt.
In another shallow bowl, combine eggs and water.
In a third shallow bowl, stir together the bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese.
3. Coat the same baking pan with the 1 tablespoon oil. When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, dip them a few at time in the flour mixture, then the egg mixture, then the bread crumbs, coating them evenly. Arrange coated vegetables in a single layer in the prepared pan.
4. Roast 15 minutes, or until vegetables are brown and crispy on surface.
Recipe courtesy of the White House Kitchen
Smashed Apple Jam
Part jam, part apple sauce, this smashed apples recipe is a no-sugar-added way to sweeten your favorite foods. It keeps for two weeks, so mix a large batch, and use it generously.
4 pounds of apples
1/2 cup water
1. Peel, core and slice apples. Place apples and water in a 4 or 5-quart heavy-bottom pan over medium heat. Simmer, covered, for 15 minutes, until very tender. Remove from heat. Mash apples with a potato masher or blend with an immersion blender. Return to heat and simmer, uncovered, for 15 to 30 minutes until the jam thickens and most of the liquid has evaporated.
2. Transfer to a covered container. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Yield: 4 cups.
Recipe courtesy of the White House Kitchen
Turkey Lasagna with Spinach
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chopped yellow onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound fresh ground turkey
1 can (28 ounces) plum tomatoes, crushed
1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
15 ounces low-fat ricotta or low-fat cottage cheese
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 large egg, beaten
2 pounds fresh spinach, washed, but not dried
16 cooked lasagna noodles
1 pound low-fat shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until translucent.
Add garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add ground turkey and cook for about 10 minutes.
Add plum tomatoes and tomato paste, and season with salt and pepper; let simmer until thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in basil and parsley; set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese and egg; season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Place damp spinach in a large skillet over medium heat; cook until wilted. Remove from heat and set aside.
Ladle one-quarter of the turkey mixture into a 9-by-13 baking dish; spread to cover.
Add a layer of lasagna noodles, one-third of the mozzarella, one-third of the ricotta mixture, one-third of the spinach mixture and another quarter of the turkey mixture. Repeat process two more times; top with remaining layer of pasta. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan over top; transfer to oven. Bake until bubbly, 25 to 30 minutes.
Let stand about 5 minutes before cutting; serve.
Sam Kass, White House Chef
Easy Fruit Pocket Pies
3/4 cup fresh raspberries and/or blueberries
2 tablespoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons smashed apple jam or apple butter
12 slices soft whole grain white or soft whole wheat bread
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash berries and spread to dry on paper towels. Meanwhile, stir together sugar and cinnamon; set aside.
2. For each pie, spoon 1 tablespoon of Smashed Apple Jam in the center of a bread slice. Top with 3 to 4 berries and another slice of bread. Gently press the top slice around the fruit. Trim crusts from bread using a serrated knife.
3. Using a fork, press the edges of the bread together to seal in the filling. Lightly brush the top slice of bread with some of the oil. Pick up each pie and, while holding in your hand, lightly brush the opposite side with oil. Place pies on an ungreased baking sheet. Sprinkle tops with cinnamon-sugar.
4. Bake pies 18 to 20 minutes, or until bread is lightly toasted and bottoms are browned. Transfer to a cooling rack. Cool at least 30 minutes before serving.
Yield: 6 servings.
Criseta Comerford, White House Executive Chef