The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


White House serving North Dakota bison at tonight's dinner

First Lady Michelle Obama discusses the menu for tonight's White House dinner honoring British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha Cameron. Seated at right are Brooke Anderson, chief of staff at the National Security Council, and White House Executive Chef Chris Comerford. (The Hagstrom Report/Jerry Hagstrom)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will break with their pattern of serving beef at high-level dinners when they serve bison tonight at a high-level dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha Cameron.

“The main course, Bison Wellington, is a perfect pairing of U.S. and U.K. cultures,” the White House said in a guide to the dinner. “The Wellington is a classic English dish given an American twist with the use of buffalo tenderloin.”


Table setting for tonight's official dinner. (The Hagstrom Report/Jerry Hagstrom)

The first lady previewed the meal and the table setting for the press at an event to which American and British school girls also were invited, and noted that “hundreds of people are coming tonight.”

A spokeswoman for the first lady said the bison came from North Dakota, although she declined reveal what farm it came from, saying that they never reveal suppliers due to security concerns.

The dinner is a coup for the American bison industry because the event will receive worldwide news coverage.

Bison will also be served at the North American Agricultural Journalists dinner at the National Press Club on April 16. NAAJ President Ed Maixner had already made the decision to serve bison before the White House announced the menu for tonight’s dinner.

Eddie Gehman Kohan, who writes Obama Foodorama, the online chronicle of food at the Obama White House, said in an interview that until this event the Obamas have served beef at every high-ranking White House dinner except the pesco-vegetarian dinner for the Indian prime minister.

Some nutritionists have said that since Michelle Obama promotes healthy eating, it has been surprising how often she and the president eat calorically dense beef and indulge themselves at fast-food establishments like Five Guys Burgers and Fries. But nutritionists view bison as a lean, healthy meat.

Other courses tonight will feature foods from other parts of the country. The first course will be Alaskan halibut with a potato crust served on a bed of braised baby kale fresh from the White House garden, shaved brussel sprouts and microcabbage sprouts. The salad course also will include greens from the White House kitchen garden.

The dessert is warm lemon steamed pudding, a nod to a traditional British treat, prepared with Idaho huckleberry sauce. At the bottom of the pudding will be Newton Pippin apples, which are believed to have been developed in Queens, N.Y., in the early 18th century and were grown by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Queen Victoria liked the Newton Pippin apples so much that the British customs duty on them was eliminated.
Chris Comerford

Chris Comerford
White House Executive Chef Chris Comerford told the reporters and the school girls at the briefing that the dinner takes its inspiration from the kitchen garden’s late winter harvest and some early spring greens, which were harvested on Tuesday. She also noted that the White House kitchen garden uses hoop houses — simple metal frames covered by plastic tarps — to grow produce throughout the winter months.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan has made it possible for farmers throughout the country to obtain federal money to construct the hoop houses as part of USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign.

Comerford, noting that the kitchen garden has grown to 1,700 square feet, said her biggest challenge cooking at the White House is incorporating “whatever grows out there” into the menus.

At the briefing, Brooke Anderson, chief of staff at the National Security Council, also spoke to the girls and noted the seriousness of state and official visits. The dinner will be considered an official dinner rather than a state dinner because Queen Elizabeth is the British head of state, while Cameron is the elected leader. In the United States the president is both the head of state and the elected leader.

Comerford told the girls she studied food technology at the University of the Philippines but decided to become a chef because cooking involves both food and science.
American bison at the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge in western Montana. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The bison industry is doing well, according to the website of the National Bison Association, which notes that it entered 2012 in the “strongest economic position in its history.”

“Consumer demand for lean, delicious bison meat is continuing to outstrip the available supply of market-ready animals,” the association says. “The resulting high prices processors are paying for those animals has sent a strong signal to ranchers to build their herds across the United States.”

The growth of the bison industry “represents a remarkable comeback for a species that teetered on the brink of extinction little more than a century ago,” the association notes.

“The decimation of the bison herds in the late 1800s is a bleak chapter in American history,” the NBA says, reporting that American herds totaling more than 30 million when the first European explorers arrived were nearly wiped out by the 1880s, and that at the turn of the 20th century, fewer than 1,000 bison remained.

According to USDA’s most recent Census of Agriculture, conducted in 2007, there are about 200,000 bison on private lands in the United States, the association said. With animals on public lands factored in, the actual size of the U.S. herd is now estimated at about 220,000 bison, it said.

The National Bison Association is encouraging students, beginning farmers, and existing livestock ranchers to promote what the group refers to as “The Bison Advantage.”

“We want to introduce a new generation of producers to the rewards of raising animals that thrive on native grasses, are adapted to the climate extremes and the predators of our ecosystem," the association says.

Chefs Kevin Saiyasak and Jeremy Kapper harvest winter greens from the White House kitchen garden on Wednesday. Baby kale and greens from the garden will be used in tonight's official dinner in honor of Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha Cameron, which will be served in a tent on the South Lawn. (White House/Chuck Kennedy)