Eating White House Garden Salad--Sort Of

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Photo by Eleanor Barkhorn

The salad I helped make earlier this week at Miriam's Kitchen--a meals program that serves the homeless here in Washington, D.C.--was heavy on the goodies cooks often include to make diners forget they're eating something green. It featured thickly-cut croutons and sliced radishes and was drenched in a creamy, garlicky buttermilk dressing. But it also included one ingredient few other salad-makers have at their disposal: lettuce from the White House garden.

I was, of course, thrilled to be given the task of assembling a salad with such illustrious lettuce. I've been fascinated by the project since it broke ground in March (I'm not alone--Michelle Obama said the two things foreign heads of state invariably ask her about are the garden and First Dog Bo). And I've been reading about all the produce that's come out of the garden: more than 700 pounds so far, according to the report from yesterday's fall harvest celebration at the White House.

I lucked out: at the end of the meal, after all the guests had been served, there were salad leftovers.

But, probably along with every other Washington locavore, I despaired of ever having the chance to try some myself. The fruits and vegetables from the garden go to meals for the Obamas and soup kitchens like Miriam's but are not available on the free market--not even at the seductively titled Farmers Market by the White House. (There is some wonderful food at that market, though, including pillow-like almond macaroons from Praline Bakery and a wide range of organic fruits and vegetables from Blueberry Hill Farm, The Farm at Sunnyside--where our own Sara Lipka is an intern--and many others.)

As I tore the small, firm, dark green leaves into bite-sized pieces, then washed and spun them dry, I didn't dare sample any--the food wasn't for me, a perfectly well-fed volunteer, plus I worried eating while preparing food for a large group of people was dangerous in the age of H1N1. I contented myself with knowing it was special to work with the lettuce, even if I didn't get a taste of it.

I lucked out: at the end of the meal, after all the guests had been served, there were salad leftovers. I brought a takeout dish another volunteer handed me back to the office and counted the hours and minutes until lunch time. When 1 p.m. arrived and I turned to my salad, I was in for a surprise: there were barely any greens left. All that remained were the usually-more-popular extras: radishes and dressing-soaked croutons, with just a few stray shreds of lettuce. I fished out the remaining pieces and ate them first. They were crisp and hearty, though the flavor was overpowered by the garlic in the dressing.

I was disappointed to miss my chance at tasting the fruits of the White House garden, unadulterated. But I was happy to realize there was a way to get people to skip the salad filler and go straight to the lettuce: make sure it's from the White House.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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