Q&A: The Voice of Obama Foodorama

I was right; Obama Foodorama Editor Eddie Gehman Kohan was indeed swept up in the “Onaugural” hoopla, but the intrepid blogger from Los Angeles, who claims to have slept “five hours over the past four days” came up for air yesterday after “Bam” was sworn in. Gehman Kohan, who checked in with me yesterday from somewhere near the parade route, reports that she’s been having an inaugural blast. Despite having blown into town last Saturday with nary a party invitation, she says that has managed to “crash my way into a handful of inaugural balls.”

Obama Foodorama Editor Eddie at the Green Inaugural Ball on Monday night. (Courtesy Eddie Gehman Kohan)

I asked the self-described “ag policy wonkette” to share the story behind her blog and to offer her thoughts on a buffet of topics, including newly confirmed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to the fuss over the White House chef.

So you've got this already-successful blog, Haphazard Gourmet Girls. What possessed you to take on the big guy front and center? Keeping track of "Bam" and his eating habits and take on food must be a full-time job!

On “Hap Girls” we do a lot of food and art/pop/culture pairings in addition to Ag policy/food safety commentary and recipes, and there's a very "groovy rock chick" vibe mixed in with the serious material. We moved Barack off to a separate blog because I felt Obama Foodorama needed a different tone (he is the Prez, after alll...).

I've tried to keep it a little more generally "respectful" but still hip and funny. There won't be things like slogan contests for raw milk as a sexual elixir on Obama Foodorama, which was a recent big hit on Hap Girls ("raw milk: it puts you in the moooooood"). And Hap Girls would've turned into a Barackanalia anyway if we didn't separate the blogs; it's amazing how much Obama Foodorama material there is.

In the run up to the Onauguration, I could've blogged 24 hours a day and still not covered it all, between all the petitioning going on over Ag nominees, the White House Chef fantasy football games, Bam foods being created on a daily basis by thrilled foodies, Ball and luncheon menus (actual ones, as well as those created by interested chefs), the huge Ag policy, food safety and food-related health problems (diabetes, obesity) Bam is inheriting, and the generalized interest in Bam foodie gossip.

Also, my tongue-in-cheek theory that everything related to Barack somehow relates to food just keeps getting reinforced and producing more material for the Six-Degrees of Obama Foodorama series. This particular quirk on the blog covers things like [inaugural poet] Elizabeth Alexander's insistence on using foodie metaphors at every turn in her poetry...and she did it again today, with her "working it out at the kitchen table" line in the Onaugural poem!

Even the raving debate over Bam's electronic participation in the wider world is related to food -- the central device at issue is a Blackberry, after all. As I write this, the Onaugural Lunch is on TV, and I just heard Senator Dianne Feinstein's comment that the recipe pages for the Onaugural Lunch were the most viewed pages of the Onauguration Web site. That's been the experience on the blog, with a huge readership springing up really rapidly.

Are you planning to keep the blog going throughout Barack Obama's full term? Anything that we can look forward to in the first year?

Definitely planning to keep the blog going throughout Barack's term(s). Initially, as undersecretaries are named, as the local/organic/sustainable movement asserts itself more forcefully than ever before, as the FDA/USDA issues get addressed, and as the scrutiny of the First Family continues, there will be a lot of material -- for instance, Bam's only visited two DC eateries so far...! He's also now the proud owner of a series of terrible sucker-punch stealth policy reversals that both the FDA and USDA pulled during the lame duck period (mercury standards, use of antibiotics in food animals, to name a few), a sprawling, pork-laden Farm Bill that is the subject of almost daily debate, and we're in the middle of a major foodborne disease outbreak as Bam takes office.

Immediate changes are needed in the way CDC, FDA and USDA work together during disease outbreaks, as well as the need for appointing not so much a food safety "czar" as a food safety "mentor" to coordinate the activities of the three agencies. We're in the middle of a period of terrible economic downturn, which leads to both hunger issues and grocery bill issues, and we're trying to figure out a new energy policy, which is directly related to the use of varying kinds of ethanol...which is directly related to food crops.

Also, sadly, the US is the biggest importer of Chinese food products in the world, and the Chinese make the most dangerous food products in the world. The issues on the blog affect everyone whether they're an official "foodie" or not. Eventually the blog may turn back into what the tagline claims -- a daily diary, one byte at a time -- a historic, electronic document of Barack and food. Right now, we have all kinds of interviews scheduled with foodie thinkers and food/farm activists, chefs and restaurateurs, as well as guest posts from other bloggers, in addition to the usual fun Chowbama gossip...

Why do you think Obama is such a compelling public figure from a food perspective?

As Nicholas D. Kristof pointed out in a recent New York Times op ed, "everyone eats." If you can't find something to personally relate to in the panopoly of continents, races, time zones and family situations that created Barack, there's always food. His competing reputations as both a comfort food lover, a junk food addict and a gourmet make him highly accessible no matter what the entry point. I also think the fact that he's a slim fellow who is perpetually photographed eating, and that he holds many meetings over meals, speaks to the secret fantasy that's promoted by the billion-dollar US diet industry: You *can* eat a lot, and still stay slender. That's a false assumption, but very compelling.

President Obama says he wants a different type of government, one that's open and accessible. Does this openness carry over to his diet and should we expect him to set an example at the dinner table?

This is currently a big topic of debate in the food world, as you're probably aware. The Alice Waters/Ruth Reichl/Danny Meyer contingent is calling for the White House kitchen to be a "bully pulpit" to change American eating habits, and asking that [White House Chef] Cristeta Comerford be allowed to be a public advocate for certain food choices.

But former White House executive chef Walter Scheib addressed this in a long interview [KOD: link]on Obama Foodorama, and he points out that there needs to be a certain level of privacy for a family that is living in a fishbowl: Do we really need to know about every single thing Barack eats? (A funny question coming from the blog that covers what Barack eats). I actually think we do not, and luckily Obama Foodorama is as much about policy as it is about consumption. If Barack eats in public, that's fair game; what he's munching at home is his own business.

Mr. Scheib also points out another part of this issue that should be obvious, but is often forgotten: If Barack is publicly advocating, say, free-range chickens, he's unintentionally "dissing" cage-raised chickens, yet his constituents include both kinds of farmers. One part of his constituency experiences a big downturn in sales.

Clearly, Barack and Michelle will both need to be very, very careful about what kind of food they "publicly" advocate. Dining out at restaurants is a whole separate category, and it'll be terrific for DC restaurants to get the Brand Obama effect -- if the long lines at Ben's Chili Bowl are any indication. In the same way J. Crew experienced a whopping increase in sales, any food that gets associated with The Obamas will enjoy huge popularity, but he needs to be very "politic" about what he actually endorses.

What do you think the decision to keep Cristeta Comerford as the White House chef?

I think it's terrific. She's apparently exceptionally talented as a cook, and the particular mix of skills being the White House chef requires is not something that's easily acquired outside of actually working in the White House kitchen. The Obamas have a huge "project" ahead as they adjust to the White House, and having a talented chef who can immediately make them comfortable is vitally important.

You mention on the blog that you're an ag policy "wonkette." What is your take on Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture? (

I "called" the Vilsack nom as soon as [former Senator from South Dakota] Tom Daschle got tapped as Secretary of Health and Human Services; they'd worked together before, and worked together very well, so I wasn't surprised that he got the nom, despite the immediate outrage in the organic world.

Although the sustainable/organic anti-genetic engineering contingent is very against Vilsack, he could well turn out to be no worse than previous Ag secretaries. Oops, that makes him pretty bad.

At the moment, I'd like to believe we really are heading into an era of change, and that Mr. Vilsack will be open to the very excellent suggestions of the people doing the day-to-day work in food production and food safety, and nutrition, and....the man has a huge job.

He's well connected politically and well-liked, and perhaps hope is on the horizon in food. But it IS alarming that he's been pro-ethanol, pro genetic engineering, pro industrial agriculture...but that would describe most of our elected representatives, and why should Mr. Vilsack be the only one taking the hit for what was considered standard operating procedure in the past? The difference is, we know waaay better now, and with work, perhaps Mr. Vilsack will get up so speed on a good, clean, fair and healthy program of food and agriculture for the 21st century. He certainly has many, many knowledgeable people offering him assistance.

Do you work full time in the agricultural policy arena?

You'd think. I worked my way through an Ivy League college and grad school by cooking (as a pastry chef) and later worked as a science/medical journalist, as well as doing pop-culty writing. When blogging was "invented," people with such an odd mix of skills could meld them happily, and so...I did. The sudden popularity of Obama Foodorama, and a lot of attention in the regular media has led to all kinds of job offers in both ag policy and "communications" so...perhaps I'll be moving to Washington soon, instead of just wishing I lived here.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 21, 2009; 6:32 AM ET Food Politics
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Fun, Kim! And another blog for me to peruse.

How'd you spend yesterday and, what did you eat?

Posted by: CentreOfNowhere1 | January 21, 2009 11:16 AM

CentreofNowhere1, Yesterday was a CNN affair here at Casa App, and since we're on Pacific Time, we were having coffee (and leftover Mary Todd Lincoln cake) as Obama was getting sworn in. One of my dearest friends who lives around the corner brought her six-month-old over to watch history being made. We had plans to make a big breakfast, but it never materialized, and after the speech, it was just me and the TV for the remainder of the day while I worked. Early eve, we checked out a little tavern that serves great burgers to see what folks were saying about the day, and that was kinda fun.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 21, 2009 11:50 AM

Hi Kim! My big plans for a pot of beef stew never materialized either...we ended up having frozen pizza for lunch and went out for Mexican for dinner.

I was wondering, do you think a chili bar would be good food for my housewarming party? I have that great vegan recipe posted by a fellow reader and I make a good beef one as well. I'm trying to convince the hubby that this would be good.

Posted by: earlysun | January 21, 2009 12:57 PM

We had home-made mac and cheese (NOT the boxed crap), and Obamartinis to celebrate. Weird pairing but we were into comfort foods and it was cold here last night.

This is off-topic, but why would cooked/baked items like cookies need to be pulled due to this salmonella scare? I understand why raw peanut butter products would need to be pulled, but wouldn't baking cookies at 350 for 10-15 minutes kill the salmonella? If salmonella is in eggs, doesn't the cooking of the eggs kills the salmonella? I thought a minute or so at 160 was the target safe temperature. Is this just being extra super cautious?

Posted by: khachiya1 | January 21, 2009 1:32 PM

Khachiya1 et al: I am working on a q/a with a food safety guru to help you figure out the peanut butter stuff. Stay tuned.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 21, 2009 4:12 PM

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