Michelle Obama first had the notion of creating a garden at the White House before there was any certainty her family would be moving here. It was even before the victory in the Iowa caucuses in January 2008 that would ignite her husband's hard-fought Democratic nomination battle against Clinton, then a New York senator and now his secretary of State.
"Back then, it was really just the concept of, I wonder if you could grow a garden on the South Lawn?" Michelle Obama says. "If you could grow a garden, it would be pretty visible and maybe that would be the way that we could begin a conversation about childhood health, and we could actually get kids from the community to help us plant and help us harvest and see how their habits changed."
She was a city kid from Chicago's South Side who had never had a garden herself, though her mother recalls a local victory garden created to produce vegetables during World War II. One childhood photo included in the book shows Michelle as an infant in her mother's arms — the resemblance between Marian Robinson in the picture and Michelle as an adult is striking — and another depicts a young Michelle practicing a headstand in the backyard.
("I can't do that anymore," the 48-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer says with a chuckle in the interview. "Tried it and had a headache for a week.")
Concern about her daughters' health had sparked her interest in seeking out fresher, healthier and more locally grown foods. She discussed the idea with some friends who gardened but didn't mention it to her husband until after Election Day.
"I didn't talk to him about it until he had won, because I figured you don't jinx an election by talking to the candidate about — you know, 'When we get there … ' " she says, gesturing around her and laughing. After the election, she broached her idea to start the first vegetable garden on the White House grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden in the 1940s.
Since the garden's groundbreaking in 2009 — just two months after the inauguration — she has hosted seasonal waves of students from local elementary schools that help plant the seeds. Groundskeepers and dozens of volunteers weed and tend the garden. Charlie Brandts, a White House carpenter who is a hobbyist beekeeper, has built a beehive a few feet away to pollinate the plants and provide honey that Michelle Obama says "tastes like sunshine."
(The hive faces southeast to put the flight path of the bees in the opposite direction of the White House basketball court, and the base is solidly strapped to the ground so turbulence from the Marine One helicopter, which lands and takes off nearby, won't topple it.)
Some of the harvest is donated to Miriam's Kitchen, a feeding program for the homeless in downtown Washington, and jars of pickled White House vegetables have been part of gift packages for United Nations dignitaries. At a luncheon last week for spouses of the Group of Eight leaders meeting at Camp David, the menu featured greens from the White House garden.
The book includes recipes from White House chefs, from corn soup to spinach pie.
Obama is contributing her proceeds from the book to the National Park Foundation, a non-profit group that will use the funds to offset the modest costs of the White House garden as well as finance programs promoting gardening, healthful eating and outdoor activities by young people.