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Why the world hangs on Obama’s every bite

Our new president eats something and the world wants to eat it, too. We've always cared about the words that emerge from a president's lips, but has there ever been such attention to the food that enters them?
/ Source: The Associated Press

At the bustling Pi pizza restaurant in St. Louis, the staff has come up with a new mantra: "It's just pizza!"

Just pizza, and yet still, they marvel, customers are happy to wait well upward of two hours at peak time for a table. That is, ever since news came out that Barack Obama loved this pizza so much during a campaign stop, the owners were invited to recreate it in the White House ovens.

"We tell them it'll be two to four hours, and they say, OK!" says owner Chris Sommers, who traveled on his own dime to prepare the presidential meal in April. "This has been our own private stimulus package."

Focus on food
Pizza from St. Louis, pancakes from Pittsburgh. A juicy burger or a chili half-smoke in D.C., soul food in Chicago. Our new president eats something and the world wants to eat it, too. We've always cared about the words that emerge from a president's lips, but has there ever been such attention to the food that enters them?

"Well, White House cookbooks have always been popular — but no, there's never been this flood of interest before," says Eddie Gehman Kohan, editor of the "Obama Foodorama" blog (subject matter self-explanatory.) She sees a fusion of two potent forces: An escalating interest in food and food policy, and enormous curiosity in anything Obama.

And all this interest may have even more to do with Michelle than Barack. Some polls have shown the first lady is even more popular than her husband, and for all the focus on her fashions and her biceps, she's made food a prime area of interest — especially with her new White House kitchen garden.

"She's brought new and much needed attention to critical food issues," says Kohan. "She's also really raised awareness by describing her family's own journey through bad food habits and into a healthier lifestyle."

Indeed, foodies have no doubt that it was Michelle who chose Blue Hill, a pricey but understated New York restaurant that champions locally grown produce, for the couple's much-discussed "Date Night" at the end of May.

Kohan was out that evening, but when she returned, the Twitter messages were flying: "Are they at Blue Hill?" "Does anyone know for sure?" The next day, she says, her blog got millions of hits.

With all the chatter, and with restaurants often happily revealing Obama menu picks, it's stunning that a central mystery remains: What did the Obamas eat? The restaurant won't spill the (organic) beans, and as for fellow diners, "Everyone gave them space and was too cool to bother them," says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University who ate at a nearby table.

Cool up to a point, that is. "When they got up, the whole place broke out into spontaneous applause," says Eva Fleischer, who was dining with her husband and friends. "Barack said, 'Hi guys,' and Michelle even touched my friend on her shoulder!"

Not surprisingly, in this Obama Foodorama world, the plates had hardly been cleared before the choice of restaurant itself became a subject of foodie debate.

"Isn't the very predictability of this choice ... ever so slightly disappointing?" wrote New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni. It would have been fun, he added, to see the Obamas "reach for something rich, messy, decadent, gluttonous." He suggested fatty lamb ribs, or offal.

"No comment," says Blue Hill chef Dan Barber, who won't say another word about the evening, though he's said to have personally cooked an off-the-menu feast for the Obamas. A noted champion of the farm-to-table movement, Barber speculates that the incredible reaction to the Obamas' food habits has only partly to do with them.

"There's definitely been an increased awareness about issues relating to food," Barber said in a telephone interview. "How food grows, who's growing it and where it's from."

"But now we have an administration that has shown an interest in these issues, and more than just a nod," Barber added. He thinks the Obamas, especially Michelle, could do a lot to help the country move toward a healthier way of eating.

"It's my hope that she can do more for this movement through her support than her husband can do within the political system," Barber said. "Because she's framing it in terms of enjoyment and pleasure. She depoliticizes it."

Politics in the kitchen
It's true, though, that food has become more political than ever. One small example: In December, chef and author Alice Waters wrote the Obamas, offering to help select a new White House chef, "a person with integrity and devotion to the ideals of environmentalism, health, and conservation."

That irked former White House chef Walter Scheib, who spent 11 years as top chef, for both the Clintons and the Bushes.

"My problem was that she was calling for the ouster of a talented, skilled individual," he says, referring to his former assistant and current White House chef Cristeta Comerford, who has remained in the job. (She's assisted by a Chicago chef brought in by the Obamas, Sam Kass.)

Scheib applauds Waters, though, for advocating for the White House garden, something he always wanted himself. Still, he says, "In the big picture it's probably at the bottom of the top 100 things President Obama needs to do in this world."

Debate is even taking place over a few offhand comments Michelle Obama has made about cooking.

"I don't miss cooking. I'm just fine with other people cooking," she told children in a lighthearted discussion at the White House recently. But to one critic, Amanda Hess, "The message was unmistakable: that everyday cooking is a chore."

Writing Monday in The New York Times, Hess, who runs a cooking Web site, urged Mrs. Obama to venture back into the kitchen. "Her progress could be our progress," Hess wrote. "And with those arms, she could out-whisk anyone."

Perhaps it's no shock that with a family as popular and as influential as the Obamas, "a lot of people want their agenda tattooed onto the family," Scheib says. But he urges people to remember that the Obamas are, in the end, pretty much like us.

"People forget: Presidents and first families don't come from Mars," he says. "They eat the food real people eat. The White House is a private home, and they're still a family."