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Waters-gate? Alice Waters' Controversial Role in the Obama Vegetable Garden

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I'm loving the news that the Obamas are planting a vegetable garden -- but I'm perhaps loving even more the compost heap of controversy surrounding Alice Waters' role in making it happen.

Alice Waters, co-founder of Berkeley's Chez Panisse, is credited with everything from launching "California Cuisine," on the modest side of the scale, to being "the mother of modern American cooking" on the less-than-modest. But is she the force behind the Obama's new gardening project?

Alice Waters certainly is a polarizing figure -- in foodie circles, people seem to either revere her or think she's a ruthless hack goofball. And she's definitely been embroiled in the eating politics of the Obamas for a while now. In February, Gourmet.com ran a profile of her political efforts, entitled "Ms. Waters Goes to Washington", as well as the full text of the open letter Waters wrote to the Obamas calling for a vegetable garden.

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes ran a (often cringe-inducing) segment on Alice Waters, in which she renewed her call for the victory garden. "I have been talking nonstop about the symbolism of an edible landscape at the White House. I think it says everything about stewardship of the land, and about the nourishment of the nation," Waters said. She said she was "very hopeful" about the garden's chances, and said, "I've always liked the idea of doing press conferences at the compost heap."

So this week's announcement of the White House vegetable garden has been widely described as a victory in column Alice. (I've compiled a list of those references here.)

But others beg to differ. The blog Eat Me Daily deconstructs (and debunks) Alice Water's influence on the Obamas. The blog Obama Foodorama seems to see it as something of a media frame-up -- pointing out some of Waters' quoted inaccuracies and wondering why the New York Times and Gourmet didn't correct them.

What's more, healthy eating is a policy focus of Michelle Obama, and, while the vegetable garden is a really nice symbol, it seems both the Clinton and the Bush White Houses sourced local and organic foods, and there's even a private vegetable garden -- albeit a rooftop container garden.

Here's what I think: it's silly to dismiss the role that Alice Waters has played in shaping our preferences towards local, sustainable and organic foods, of which this White House veggie garden is a symbol, just as its silly to give one person all the credit for the same.

To me this is a perfect example of mainstream media reductionism, which boils complex issues down into a screenplay-suitable plot, with protagonists, antagonists, and contrived twists and turns -- while glossing over important context and background.

I actually don't have a strong opinion about Waters either way, but it doesn't seem crazy to me that a restaurateur's attempts at political activism would be imperfect or clumsy, no matter how bright the star of said restaurateur, or how lofty her ambitions.

What do you think?