Putting meals where their mouths are, Obamas choose local produce on Martha’s Vineyard holiday

By Mark S. Smith, AP
Friday, August 27, 2010

On Martha’s Vineyard, Obamas savor local produce

VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. — For a vacationing President Barack Obama, it seems all produce — like politics — is local.

In the majority of their dinner outings since arriving on Martha’s Vineyard last week, the president and his wife have eaten at restaurants that feature locally grown fruits, vegetables and herbs.

And the White House has let it be known that the meals being cooked at their rented vacation compound feature all manner of things from farms and gardens on this island off Cape Cod.

It seems the passion for freshness behind first lady Michelle Obama’s backyard garden at the White House hasn’t taken a holiday during her family’s stay here.

“Our real focus and mission, what we’re really committed to, is local and sustainable food,” said Mary Kenworth, owner of the State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury, where the Obamas dined Tuesday night. “We have our own vegetable garden in the back, and we buy produce from 20 different suppliers on the island.”

Kenworth declined to reveal what the Obamas ordered for entrees but said their table shared an appetizer of lobster tempura served with island corn succotash and a lemon vinaigrette sauce. The restaurant just opened last year, but already it’s a favorite of Vernon Jordan, the Washington power-broker and longtime Vineyard resident who was among the friends joining the first couple.

The other restaurant the Obamas dined at with friends was The Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs, on Monday. It was the second consecutive year they’ve gone to the restaurant, which features “contemporary French-American cuisine with an accent on local catches and produce,” according to its website.

On Friday night, they traded the earth for the sky: They had dinner in Menemsha at the Beach Plum Inn Restaurant, renowned for its view of the sunset.

“Executive Chef James McDonough prepares daily culinary works of art from the fresh native Atlantic seafood, aged beef and free-ranged chicken, among other delights,” says its website.

The locally grown and raised food movement is, of course, not native to Martha’s Vineyard or new with the Obamas. But the first lady especially has lent it her cachet. Backers say supporting local farms, fishermen and ranches not only yields fresher foods, it indirectly helps preserve rural areas against encroaching development and minimizes environmental damage from mega-farms, slaughterhouses and long-distance trucking.

For much of the Obamas’ planned 10-day stay, they’ve remained at Blue Heron Farm, a multimillion-dollar hideaway with its own gym, basketball court, guesthouse and stretch of beach.

But the Obamas brought along chef Sam Kass, who cooked for them in Chicago before joining the White House staff last year. Kass is also a driving force behind the White House herb and vegetable garden and advises the Obamas on nutrition.

Asked what he’s been cooking here, Kass thanked a reporter by e-mail for “reaching out” but passed along questions to the first lady’s press office.

A spokeswoman there, Semonti Stephens, wouldn’t reveal the menu. But she was pleased to report it featured these items grown on Martha’s Vineyard: basil, cilantro, corn, kale, lettuce, peppers, potatoes, radishes, rosemary, tomatoes and turnips.

If that sounds inordinately healthy, note that Mrs. Obama turned up for ice cream last weekend at a shop in Oak Bluffs. On Wednesday, all the Obamas — daughters Malia and Sasha included — went for lunch at Nancy’s, an Oak Bluffs restaurant known for its fried local seafood. Obama told reporters he was ordering shrimp.

And at The Sweet Life, both the first lady and her husband ordered steak. His was combined with ribs. Mrs. Obama asked to turn her entree into surf and turf with the addition of lobster.

“Of course we’re going to make that work for the president and his wife,” said Abby McBride, a hostess at the restaurant.

So what’s it like when suddenly a restaurant hears the Obamas are on the way over?

“Everyone was excited, of course,” Kenworth said. “There was definitely an adrenaline buzz going. But when they got here, everyone respected their privacy and gave them their space. They had a nice, leisurely dinner. They were here for almost three hours.”

On the way out, the Obamas stopped to chat and shake hands with the staff. “He had something personal to say to everyone,” Kenworth recalled.

At The Sweet Life, a man called to reserve the back room saying he was proposing to his girlfriend and both sets of parents would be present, owner Susan Guerin was quoted by The Vineyard Gazette as saying. She thought it was odd, and her suspicion the Obamas were paying a return visit was confirmed when Secret Service agents and a bomb-sniffing dog showed up.

For The Sweet Life’s staff, the predinner excitement was seasoned with a pinch of panic. The power was out.

A summer rainstorm that churned up seas and lashed trees on the island for four days had parts of Oak Bluffs, including Sweet Life, in darkness during intervals on Monday.

“We didn’t think we were going to be able to open up,” McBride reported. “But the owner had a feeling. And the power came on just in time.”

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