Alice Waters, taking the slow route
By Lou Fancher
A phone call with chef Alice Waters — founder of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant and one of the nation’s foremost food activists and educators — is, naturally, a feast. Waters touches lightly on her latest book, “We Are What We Eat,” focusing first on other recent projects such as the UC Global Food Initiative, establishing the Institute for Edible Education at UC Davis, and Lulu, the organic restaurant opened at the Hammer Museum at UCLA.
She starts with the subject of meals. Her book models nine must-have values of sharing food: seasonality, stewardship, community, diversity, nourishment, beauty, generosity, love and equity. The first chapters address seven attributes of fast food culture: convenience, uniformity, availability, trust in advertising, cheapness, more is better and speed. Then, she introduces the superlatives of slow food culture that add biodiversity to the nine food values. Throughout, Waters combines research and scientific studies with personal stories about her childhood, the early days of Chez Panisse and her relentless pursuit to discover new ways of thinking, presenting and sharing food.
“I’m in LA, looking to see what’s in the farmer’s market, what’s growing right now,” says Water as she describes the meal she is planning for later the same day. “Cari and Early Girl tomatoes because other, bigger tomatoes aren’t ripe yet. I love a multicolored tomato carpaccio salad with vinaigrette, lots of mint, purple basil. It’s the garlic harvest so I’ll definitely poach fresh fish of the day, like a sea bass, now that the local salmon is gone. I’ll serve it with aioli on top and croutons on the side and I’ll put saffron in a broth and make a big bowl of soup to share around the table. All I can think about for dessert are apricots, raw, or baked in a galette that has that sweet-sour taste.”
“We Are What We Eat” has Waters, along with co-writers Bob Carrau and Cristina Mueller, issuing a science-backed slow food manifesto that protests the degradations of today’s fast food: hunger, illness, malnutrition, abuse of workers, environmental and actual food waste; and derides the evils of convenience, uniformity, availability, false advertising, cheapness, quantity and speed.
Waters says writing about food in terms of human values is intensely challenging. “The three of us worked at every one of those values. We were really trying to get the right language; to not sound trite about human values is very difficult.”
The book’s messages are, like many made by Waters, simple origami-like ideas whose folds reveal complexity, forethought, structure, kindness. In the book, phrases such as “you can’t fake ripeness,” as an argument for seasonal food, or “terms get hijacked,” in reference to exploitation by advertisers of “local, “fair trade” and “organic,” quickly summarize how fast food is pernicious and inherently harms all forms of biological life.
Even so, Waters is fiercely optimistic. At the Edible Schoolyard Project at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Middle School, she has watched students who in 6th grade were “picky, hesitant” eaters become in two years “young environmentalists eager to eat anything they can grow and cook.” The project has expanded from one school to a network of 6,500 schools worldwide.
Asked if the pandemic will improve conditions and appreciation for the people who grow our food and how it’s delivered — or intensify attention to natural resource preservation and workplace equity, Waters says the big agriculture industrial food system has been repeatedly exposed.
“People have been shocked by truths revealed and hard data related to the killing of animals, food waste, poisoning of land, beaches and water, pesticide use, distribution and carbon footprints,” she says.
Yet Waters is concerned that people increasingly believe the medical system knows better than Mother Nature. “We need to take care of her and allow her to flourish,” she says. “We need to eat seasonally. Learn from Indigenous people and traditions. … We need to make edible education part of every school curriculum.”
Which is why the UC project is critical. The edible education formula is multipronged: connect to people making food on the land, pay real costs for the food provided, allow no middlemen, stay local, reduce carbon footprints, fund school programs properly, devise menus that use every morsel and strive for zero waste, establish networks so the U.S. school food system does not spend billions of taxpayer dollars buying fast food or food mostly from outside local areas.
Waters relishes in feeding people ideas: “I always say bring a bowl of something irresistible to the table because I don’t want to have conversations only in classrooms. Gathering and having something tasty touches people in a different way.”
The call ends, fittingly, with a butterfly. Waters is taking a photo with her phone, a sight that causes her to mention the victory garden she planted in the front yard of her home the minute the pandemic started. “I was worried about running out of lettuce. People left me notes on the trellis to say they were doing the same thing. Who knows where that will go? Neighbors putting food on each other’s porches? It’s a sign of community. I feel this is our moment in time.”