Saturday, June 13, 2009

Alice Waters

I adore good food. There are a few restaurants I love (that's another post altogether) but most of the time I find myself considering what exactly it is I am eating. Like many, I think about how many calories might be in a meal, but more often these days I just wonder about the origins of the ingredients. And, as I become a more experienced cook, it occurs to me I could prepare something better at home for a lot less money.

Years ago, my mom took me to pick strawberries, something that was a novelty for me but that she'd spent many childhood hours working at. As a family, we went to an orchard to pick the most delicious apples (McIntosh) I have ever eaten. We kept the extras in the fridge in the basement and I remember coming home from school and their sweet, crisp smell and taste.

Although Dad was raised in town, Mom lived on a farm during her formative years. When I was a child, her stories were of hard work, but now I see she's taken away the gift of understanding of the superior taste of truly fresh food. Even now she will go to a particular country stand to get fresh corn, because she knows the owners and is certain they've picked that morning the corn they are selling. And when she and Dad winter in South Texas, she knows exactly which stinky shrimp stand will have the best prawns. Mom is, in modern terms, a locavore.

By far the most famous locavore is Alice Waters. I first read about her in Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, where Pollan characterizes Waters as much as a social force as she is a chef. And she is indeed evangelical about eating locally and seasonally. As earth-shattering as Pollan's book was for me, though, it's a bit of a downer if you aren't already really passionate about the subject of food. To really get a fun introduction to Waters and the movement she is a part of and for which she is arguably the prime mover, check out Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution.", by Thomas McNamee.

Chez Panisse is in Berkeley, California, opened in 1973. I visited that strange and unique town about a decade ago, long before I'd ever heard of Waters or her restaurant, and I have a vague recollection of my much more sophisticated hosts pointing it out, but I had no idea what they were talking about until a few years ago. In hindsight I kick myself.

Through exhaustive interviews with people who've been involved with the restaurant over the years, McNamee captures not just the beginnings of a social movement but all the craziness--during the first three years of Chez Panisse's operations, nearly $30,000 worth of wine went unaccounted for, and the torrid affairs amongst various employees makes for some salacious reading--of the restarant world.

McNamee interviewed exhaustively for the book, and his research reveals the founder as a diminutive woman with an iron will. Waters is a visionary, and, by all accounts, a piece of work. But almost everyone interviewed expressed admiration and a deep friendship with her, and she has changed the way many eat, at least "foodies" a term she has said she finds horriblye elitist. She is, true to her Berkeley roots, unapologetically egalitarian, and has worked tirelessly in recent years to popularize local farmer's markets as a way for everyone to eat well. Though painfully aware most Americans still eat plastic food every day, Waters remains determined, as she put it in a speech in 2004, to: "break down the wall of ignorance between farmers and eaters." Reading about her reminded me of some things I knew already, and also of how much I have to learn about good food.

1 comment:

  1. I was listening to Think on NPR yesterday (Wealth and the Durable Future with Bill McKibbin), and the topic was "going Green" in all aspects of your life. One of the points McKibbin made was that for a year he only ate food that was grown in a certain proximity to his home. He said that in a very nice way this put him more in touch and atuned to his local community. That comment - although obvious to most, I'm sure – I thought was a lovely way of thinking about being Green in your daily diet. It's not just about being green, but also about being an active, engaged member of your community. It's my theory that these ideas will enhance your enjoyment and appreciation for the food you consume.