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Obama Foodorama

What and where the First Family eat has reached cult status with Americans.

by: AFP | 09 Jun 2009

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, customers are happy to wait more than two hours at peak time for a table – ever since the news that Barack Obama loved it so much during a campaign stop that the owners were invited to recreate it in the White House ovens.

Pizza from St. Louis, pancakes from Pittsburgh. A juicy hamburger or a chili half-smoke sausage in Washington, soul food in Chicago. The new American president eats something and others want to eat it, too. Has there ever been such attention to the food the president eats?

"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. She sees a fusion of two potent forces: An escalating interest in food and food policy, and enormous curiosity in anything Obama.

Michelle Obama is the driving force
And all this interest may have even more to do with first lady Michelle Obama 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.

A bit predictable?
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 United States 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 depoliticises it."

I don't miss cooking
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."

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