Hummus Is Standard Fare at the White House, Thanks to Obama's Chef

Vered Guttman sits down with Cris Comerford, executive chef at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman
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Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman

President Barack Obama - as his critics often like to remind Jewish voters - has not visited Israel since 2008. But, if he misses the region’s flavors, Obama needs to go no farther than the White House kitchen.

“We make our own hummus,” said White House executive chef Cristeta (Cris) Comerford, in a special interview with Modern Manna last week. “It’s a very wonderful dish, very nutritious.”

And they make it quite often, for “every occasion pretty much,” according to Comerford. “We have so many vegetables in there [the White House kitchen garden] that we need some good dips with and hummus is one of our go to dips.”

So, if Obama loves hummus it must mean he loves us Israelis too! Israelis, self-acclaimed hummus connoisseurs, prefer their hummus with fresh pita bread, but even they have learned to accept the American usage of hummus as a dip for veggies.

But hummus, as it turns out, is only one of a medley of Middle Eastern favorites served at the Obama White House. Another dish chef Comerford is fond of is babaganush, the Middle Eastern eggplant spread. “Eggplant is such a wonderful vegetable and there are times when we have so many eggplants in the garden and I have to come up with all those different ways of doing it,” she said. ”And one thing that is very dear to me is doing the babaganush.” It's served in the White House simply on basic croutons.

Chef Comerford also likes to serve tabouleh, and tomato and cucumber salads, and in general she believes the Middle Eastern diet is a healthy way of life, one that fits the White House policy of healthy eating.

Chef Cris Comerford, 50, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1985, was first appointed White House executive chef by First Lady Laura Bush in 2005 and is the first woman and first minority to ever hold this position. Four years ago, First Lady Michelle Obama asked Comerford to stay in the chef position when the Obama family moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Part of Chef Comerford’s job was to plan and prepare a reception for Israeli president Shimon Peres when President Obama honored him with the Medal of Freedom last June. “We did a lot of the kosher-style canapes, we had salmon, tahini, hummus, home-made pita and a lot of Middle Eastern dishes,” said Comerford. “It was not strict kosher, it was a kosher-style menu.”

Every year since taking office, President Obama has hosted a Passover seder for a small group of friends and staffers, and Chef Comerford enjoys preparing classic Jewish dishes for the meal, such as beef brisket and potato latkes using old family recipes that the friends bring with them.

But the main Jewish food event at the White House is the annual Hanukkah reception.

“For Hanukkah every year we have to make sure our kitchen is ‘kosherized,’” said Chef Comerford of the event, which is the most sought after ticket for Jewish activists and politicos. Rabbis from the local Chabad movement supervise the koshering process. “Our kitchen is transformed,” she said. The process has such an attention to details that “as a chef I find it very interesting to see.”

For the Hanukkah reception, Comerford and the White House kitchen staff usually prepare their regular reception menu, but with a few adjustments needed in order to obey kashrut laws. They serve salmon and chicken dishes, a variety of non-dairy pastries and grilled vegetables. The goal is also to keep the menu healthy and to “use a lot of the seasonal vegetables that are good during the winter months.”

This time of year, the kitchen garden of the White House is filled with vegetables, some as ordinary as lettuce, and others more exotic, such as tatsoi, pac choi and swiss chard. Young cauliflowers are in full bloom next to small bushes of peppers and eggplants. Beds of herbs including thyme, sage and parsley, one whole bed of sweet potatoes and beautiful purple hyacinth bean vines also adorn the kitchen garden, at the southern end of the White House lawn. Some of the garden’s produce goes directly to the White House kitchen to be used by Chef Comerford and her staff for dishes served for anything from the Obama family dinners to official state dinner. But most of the produce goes to nonprofits such as Miriam’s Kitchen, an organization committed to ending chronicle homelessness in Washington.

The kitchen garden was planted by Michelle Obama in 2009, with the help of local school children in Washington. It is a part of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative to prevent childhood obesity by teaching kids, and their families, to have a better diet, filled with fresh vegetables and fruit.

As White House chef, Comerford is deeply involved in the First Lady’s initiative, working with Executive Pastry Chef William (Bill) Yosses and with Sam Kass, senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives, to educate the children and help their schools plan their own vegetable gardens and serve healthier lunches.

Comerford meets often with the children volunteers who help planting the vegetable garden each season. She and Yosses teach them about “processing food, cleaning food, how to store it and all the different passages, not just growing it, and how to prepare it in such a way that even young kids will appreciate it.”

“The younger the kids it’s easier to make them interested,” Comerford said. “The process of growing the vegetables is fascinating for them; they don’t get just how much it takes to grow just one simple little vegetable. When they see the whole process, they’re pretty much part of the whole thing, and it’s easier to make them eat what they see growing.”

And the same hummus she serves at the White House is among the healthy recipes Chef Comerford shares with the children. In a lemony hummus recipe for kids she gave to ChopChop online magazine Comerford described hummus as “protein-packed and easy to make” and recommended packing it in lunch-boxes together with raw veggies and multi grain crackers.

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