By Cheramie Sonnier
Advocate Food editor
WASHINGTON — One wouldn’t think a garden would be the subject of controversy at a conference for food writers.
However, the mention of a bonus visit to the White House garden championed by first lady Michelle Obama raised the ire of retired White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier.
“We’ve always had a White House garden,” he said. “It’s not new.”
What’s more, Mesnier said, he saw photographs of children carrying out large stalks of rhubarb the first year the garden was planted (in March 2009) and he knows rhubarb doesn’t grow that fast.
“You’ve caught us. It’s rhubarbgate,” laughed current executive pastry chef Bill Yosses.
The rhubarb did grow in the garden, he said, but it was started with small plants.
“We have a nursery as a support system. The garden is meant as a symbol of bringing everyone together” in promoting healthful eating to the nation’s children.
Word of the hoped-for tour of the White House garden came through on the last day of the Association of Food Journalists’ conference in September.
The next morning Yosses waited for about two dozen of the association’s members (the rest had trains and planes to catch) to clear security measures, then herded them to the South Lawn and the celebrated garden.
The L-shaped garden provides produce for the first family’s meals, and about a third of the garden’s harvest is donated to an organization feeding the hungry and homeless.
It also welcomes local schoolchildren to help plant, fertilize and harvest.
Yosses pointed out a wooden beehive which houses “a hybrid of several types of bees. We are trying to develop a stronger strain.”
A nearby birdhouse houses a security camera.
The garden’s produce, including pumpkins, watermelons, tomatillos, okra, Sungold cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, basil and strawberries, are planted in raised, wood-framed beds, separated by paths. To prepare the sea kale, slow braise and treat it like greens, said White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford.
“We’ve been getting a lot of peppers, so we’ve been doing a lot of pickling,” Comerford said as she stood near beds of hot red Texas chili peppers and Scotch bonnet peppers. “It’s an actual garden we use daily.” Whatever is ripe in the garden “dictates what we eat daily.”
Yosses passed a patch of lemon verbena and suggested two uses for it. One is to make it into pesto, using safflower oil, lemon juice and sugar to taste. “Lemon vebena with poached peaches to me is the ultimate dessert,” he said, suggesting serving with ice cream.
A section of the garden is also reserved for plants grown from seeds from Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello.