Even the Obamas Deserve a Break


Has there ever been more scrutiny of the eating habits of White House inhabitants than those of the Obamas?

First, there was a call for a self-appointed "kitchen cabinet." Then, the debate over naming a new White House chef, and, of course, the great kitchen garden kerfuffle.

Now, Michelle Obama's remarks about cooking are being taken to task on the opinion pages of the New York Times.

In an op-ed published on Sunday, Amanda Hesser writes of her disappointment with comments Obama made about, let's say, a lack of enthusiasm for cooking:

[W]hen The Washington Post asked Mrs. Obama for her favorite recipe, she replied, “You know, cooking isn’t one of my huge things.” And last month, when a boy who was visiting the White House asked her if she liked to cook, she replied: “I don’t miss cooking. I’m just fine with other people cooking.” Though delivered lightheartedly, and by someone with a very busy schedule, the message was unmistakable: everyday cooking is a chore.

Hesser says the statements are not just a letdown because she has been vocal about the importance of healthy, locally-grown ingredients, but because it represents a missed opportunity to bolster dwindling interest in cooking. Hesser's desire for a rebirth in the family kitchen for a nation increasingly detached from the experience of cooking real food from raw ingredients is admirable. And, perhaps things have become so bad that there is a place for government to encourage a return to cooking.

However -- and this is a food blogger writing this -- I don't really find what Michelle Obama said so outrageous. First of all, as Eddie Gehman Kohan points out at obamafoodorama, her remarks may have been taken out of context. But, secondly, cooking can be a chore. I think that anyone employed full-time and with children will be aware that the demands of cooking from scratch -- the shopping, the cooking, and the cleaning -- cannot always be met on a limited schedule. And, I imagine Michelle Obama's plate is quite full, to boot.

Lawn Moreover, it's not as if the Obamas are compromising the progressive views about food embodied in the White House Kitchen Garden. The garden is overseen by the White House kitchen, and the ingredients will used to prepare the family's dinners. It's not as if the organic vegetables are being tossed out in favor of heating up frozen dinners.

I also wonder why so much responsibility is being laid at the feet of Michelle Obama? As a dude who cooks, I find it a little sexist to place the responsibility of promoting cooking solely on the the first lady? Would anyone even think twice if the President had uttered his wife's words? Last week's image of Barack strolling across the White House lawn with paper bags full of take-out burgers was pretty much celebrated by the press and public. I hesitate to think of criticism Michelle would have come under were it she was carrying home takeout.

Finally, to show how the scrutiny has really gotten out of hand, peruse Frank Bruni's critique of the "predictability" of the Obamas' choice of the restaurant Blue Hill for a night out in New York City this past weekend.

I understand all of this is happening because expectations are so high for the first family, and that's a good thing. But, this is starting to go too far.

Cooking is important. Americans' diets are in trouble. But, let's give the Obamas a break.



There’s a wonderful new book out called “The Power of Small” which was written by Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval and it’s all about how small things can have a big impact. Obviously this is an extreme case, but this totally exemplifies this – no detail is too small as proven by the attention given to where and what Obama eats! On a personal note however, this book has been great because it made me more conscious about how small things can affect both my personal and professional life. Instead of feeling hopeless it’s best to be proactive and aware, both which this book allows you to do.


Josh, I enjoyed this post and agree with your point of view on the subject. While I don't agree that cooking is a chore, I do find Michelle Obama's honesty refreshing. It's that type of honesty that will endear her to people, and hopefully, make them more willing to listen to the important things she has to say on the topics that are her "big things."


Kudos to Michelle - and Barack - for being real. How they manage to keep their balance in the tsunami of interest and publicity, I can't imagine.

But it makes me appreciate them even more. Aren't we lucky to have such great leaders!


When Obama came to Canada for 6 hours he ate a beaver tail pastry. I guess Michelle wasn’t there to talk him into eating healthy food instead.


I agree! Come on, a "rebirth in the family kitchen" is great (especially if shared by both sexes), but it really hasn't been too long since women put down their knitting spools and ladles to join the workforce. It's a little ridiculous that Hesser is disappointed that Michelle's #1 priority isn't cooking. Also, I feel that the nation's interest in cooking is far from dwindling. With the surge of farmer's markets, greater access to healthy and organic food products, food/cooking blogs, (and hopefully we're on the edge of school lunch reform), eating and cooking practically is bigger than ever.


Frankly, whether Michelle Obama cooks or not is no one's business, including Ms. Hesser's. I like Hesser just fine but you called it spot on in this marvelous post. The point is that the First Family has been vocal in their support of good, honest and fresh food. That is huge, huge I tell you! And since when does championing healthy food and cooking have to be mutually exclusive? Let's take the Obama's wonderfully positive momentum and run with it and leave their personal habits where they belong: in the realm of personal choice.

Besides, I think that the First Lady probably has more pressing things to take care of these days. And I also don't think that just because she isn't into cooking, her family does not gather around the dinner table on a regular basis. Perhaps Amanda Hesser can focus more on reporting and less on pushing for her personal vision of what life is supposed to be like.


"Chapeau bas" to Michelle Obama. She really rocks. I really love when she said "My first job in all honesty is going to continue to be mom-in-chief"


Great post! There's no harm in Mrs. Obama promoting healthy eating and yet fessing up to the fact that she's not fond of cooking. I don't see how that's contradictory unless we assume that one can only eat healthy if one spends a lot of time in the kitchen or becomes a gourmet. Note that the NBC special last week showed apples throughout the WH. The footage of bowls of fresh fruit, viewed in millions of homes, may have done more to encourage ordinary families to incorporate a healthy snack into their daily lives than any food or garden blog on the planet (mine included).

Just to be clear, however, lest anyone misunderstand: the fantastic Eat The View campaign which led to the WH's kitchen garden's creation was directed at BOTH of the Obamas. During the heat of the '08 presidential race, it was directed at Obama and McCain--not their spouses. The First Lady appreciated the message as delivered to the WH by ETV leader Roger Doiron and respond to it by spearheading the creation of the garden. That was HER choice. And it was in keeping with her commitment to good nutrition and teaching children the fundamentals of gardening.


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