Out of the West: Much food for thought in the Clinton kitchen

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WASHINGTON - You thought his choices of secretary of state, treasury, defence and the rest were tricky? Well, Bill Clinton's most controversial appointment is, arguably, yet to come.

Sometime fairly soon the 42nd President, a noted patron of fast food establishments, has to pick an executive chef for the White House. And so what, you may ask. That is his own business, of interest surely only to those fortunate enough to be called to eat at the great man's table. Not so. To judge from the sound and fury already unleashed, the future health of an entire nation would appear to be in jeopardy.

Presidential food preferences have a chequered history. George Bush famously loves pork rinds and loathes broccoli; his defeated rival in 1988, Michael Dukakis, invited mockery by suggesting to cash-strapped Iowa corn farmers that they diversify into Belgian endives - a vegetable of which annual US consumption is around one-tenth of an ounce per head. But those little spats pale beside the rumpus over Mr Clinton's proclivities for junk food and its implications for the national diet.

It all started about three weeks ago with a letter from Alice Waters, moving spirit of that Californian temple of nouvelle cuisine Americaine, Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, where an organically correct meal can cost upwards of dollars 60 (pounds 40).

The letter is on headed notepaper of Chefs (Chefs Helping to Enhance Food Safety), and signed by 63 of Ms Waters's peers. It insists that what the next president serves his guests is anything but his own business.

'Good food nourishes not just the body, but the entire community,' Ms Waters opined. 'Where there is good food - food that is delicious, wholesome and responsibly produced - good health readily follows. By your example, our hopes for the restoration of the nation's health will be nourished.'

The presidential kitchens, the letter continues, should use meat and fish produced in ways that preserve the land, 'and reaffirm Thomas Jefferson's ideal of a nation of small farmers'. It urges Mr Clinton to select a chef who 'embraces this philosophy' - preferably an American instead of the French and Swiss who have had the run of the place since Jacqueline Kennedy's day.

Thus is the former governor of Arkansas poised to influence the culinary history of America. Quite where this history stands right now is a matter of some dispute. 'Food trends are passe,' declared the New York Times this weekend. 'Today's cognoscenti can be found at home, over quiet dinners.' In other words, that explosion of health-conscious, new-wave American cooking that began in the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, has run its course.

Maybe tomorrow's vogue will be for the simple home cooking that Jefferson presumably had in mind. But if the food police are to be believed, Mr Clinton could unwittingly take his country back into the cholesterol dark ages. 'Just seeing what he eats is pretty distressing,' Ms Waters told the Washington Post. 'McDonald's and Cokes, it's a terrible image.'

McDonald's, meanwhile, is promising not to run ads cashing in on its most famous patron. 'We're thrilled and happy he visits our restaurants,' coos a spokeswoman, 'but we've no plans to use any of that in our advertising. It's not something we've considered.'

But there remains the problem of the chef. The only American to hold the post since the Kennedy era was Jon Hill, whose tenure under Ronald Reagan lasted just five months. The incumbent is the French-born Pierre Chambrin, who has done a decent if unspectacular job for the Bushes. Mr Chambrin was not asked to sign the letter, though he has no quarrel with it: French chefs, he says, 'have always cooked like that'.

Such reasoning, however, may not suffice to save him. Julia Child, the doughty octogenarian queen of television cooking shows, is leading the campaign for an American. The word from Little Rock is that no decision has been made. But Mr Clinton won the presidency by promising change: can the White House kitchen really hope to escape?