My View

Apricots

There’s a pretty lively debate over at Amateur Gourmet about the recent appearance of Alice Waters on The View. I’m not going to attempt to put words into anyone’s mouth, but there seems to be a lot of mis-information about the message that Alice is trying to bring across.

Alice is an idealist, which is someone who imagines things that are…’ideal‘. We need people like that. If no one imagined anything but what already existed, or nixed any new ideas, we wouldn’t have telephones, electricity, flour, tires, espresso makers, and the Spice Girls reunion.

When I started at Chez Panisse back in 1983, few people knew what mesclun, goat cheese, or blood oranges were. Now they’re common in many supermarkets like Safeway, and sold at reasonable prices. I recently paid $5.99 for a box of Rice Krispies in New York, so I don’t buy the argument that convenience foods are cheaper than ‘healthy’ foods. Quaker Oats are about half the price, although you can’t make Rice Krispie Squares out of them.


So when Alice goes on television and presides over a display of gorgeous produce, or celebrates the glory of farm-fresh produce at the Greenmarket, why the criticism? Would we all be better off if she hadn’t spent the past thirty years advocating for better-quality and safer foods? Few in the younger generation would remember what food shopping was like in America years back as I do: Rock-hard tomatoes sold in hard plastic tubes, shrink-wrapped heads of iceberg lettuce, and if you were lucky to find something like fresh cherries, they were buried and cryo-vac’d in Styrofoam containers.

And the argument that if you’re into good, pure foods, you’re an elitist simply doesn’t hold true. If you visit Simply Recipes, you’ll find a site brimming with comfort and everyday foods with many American classics. None of the recipes rely on products laden with preservatives and the recipes encourage the use of locally-grown ingredients. And it’s deservedly one of the most popular food blogs on the internet.

Vegetables

I’m not sure I understand why this continues to be such a contentious issue. Alice’s point is that good food should be available to all. Having worked in her restaurant for over thirteen years, I saw much of what went on first-hand (hmmm…maybe there’s a book in there?) and know her commitment is genuine and deep-seated because she’s an activist not willing to sit back. Her Chez Panisse Foundation is committed to helping schools with their lunch programs to provide healthier eating for youngsters and fostering renewed awareness amongst the younger generation about what they’re eating. What’s wrong with that?

Yes, it’s easy to criticize—“She’s not living in the real world.”

Well, so what?
Most chefs that you see on television have been carefully groomed by a team of media trainers and stylists. And the ones who’ve achieved success have usually done so by carefully cultivating a polished image and presentation. While others, like Julia Child and Jacque Pepin, are naturally gifted. Imagine what it’s like to get off a plane, wake up the next morning at 4am, and head to a studio to appear nationwide on television and have three minutes to convey your message, cook, and explain what you’re doing, fielding non-stop (and sometimes off-the-wall) questions from the host simultaneously. Alice may come off as timid and reluctant at times. But I can assure you, when it comes to her passion for good food and the future of our children’s health and diets, she’s anything but.

Like all of us, Alice has her faults and isn’t perfect. And she doesn’t need me defending her or her vision. I don’t often mention her on the site, but she’s been a powerful influence in my cooking career and I can’t tell you how much of my feelings about food are influenced by her and my time cooking at Chez Panisse. If someone can find fault with wanting instill a consciousness in the next generation about what they’re eating and how the food we’re all consuming is grown, I can think of a host of other targets which are far more worthy of criticism.

But if it wasn’t for people like her who are willing to challenge the status quo, I guarantee the state of food in America would be a heckuva lot different than it is now.

Should we simply throw up our hands and say, “Oh, she’s so out of touch with reality!” and simply accept rock-hard strawberries in January, pesticide-laden vegetables, corn syrup injected dinners, or factory-raised beef slaughtered in the most inhumane, filthy conditions imaginable? Why is someone espousing positive values be circumspect? Should we give up?

Or maybe can we perhaps incorporate her ideas and work towards making them a reality and within reach of everyone, no matter what their income level, instead of squabbling about them and criticizing someone’s effort at making the positive changes which have and will continue to positively affect our food supply.

58 comments

  • Amen!!!!

  • Hi, for the first time! I must admit that I’m not familiar with Alice Waters and her work but I’ve been following Jamie Oliver an his project for healthier school dinner’s and it is so obvious the strong impact that industries have on politics. It’s such a shame! And the biggest nonsense is their argument that children prefer junk food – shouldn’t we all be worried about that fact because it is so obvious that children are addicted to junk food?

    To conclude, we need idealists who will speak directly to parents because on this one we can not relay on government since food-industries lobby is obviously too influential to allow any real changes. So, we are on our own, and every voice counts!

    We in Croatia are under tremendous political pressure from USA to allow GM food. We are small country but we are still resisting!

  • I have never been so proud of our local Markets (“feiras” ,here in Rio de Janeiro) than after reading your post today. Please let me thank you for reminding me not to take them for granted…

  • Excellent post.

    This is something I do not understand about American culture. Eating well is NOT elitist. Food is not something you just stick in your mouth. I was shocked when I went to Italy and noticed people from various backgrounds had a completely different relationship with food. My Italian friends would not dream of eating so/so food.

    My parents are from the Caribbean. When we moved to the suburbs the first thing my dad did was get his garden growing. My dad is no fancy chef, yet this man grew the best tomatoes on the planet (in my humble opinion). He tried to grow as many vegetables in that climate as possible and we would go to farmstands for Jersey corn and peaches. He did not think this was unusual.

    Eating is one of life’s pleasures. Good, fresh food should be available to all. Young kids need to know a Hot Pockets diet is not healthy.

  • You’re totally right. You said it so perfectly that I have nothing to add, except: ditto.

  • I’m always getting accused of being elitist for my eating habits. Last Sunday I woke up early and started making pancakes, bacon, and eggs for me and my sweetie. A traditional down-to-earth breakfast, right? That is, until she came downstairs, took one look at the pure maple syrup I had on the table, and said, “Eww, what’s this?”

    I sighed and said, “Look, this is REAL maple syrup. The stuff you’re used to is high fructose corn syrup with imitation maple flavoring. It doesn’t even taste like anything besides sugar”

    She then used the tired old argument that she grew up on the fake syrup because her family was poor, so that’s what she likes and that’s what she’s going to eat the rest of her life. She has this idea that I like fresh, unprocessed foods because I grew up eating them. Not so! I ate a diet of processed foods as a kid myself, but my tastes have changed since then. Once I had real maple syrup I could never go back.

    A lot of people have this notion that in order to eat healthfully you have to spend more money, spend more time cooking, and eat things that aren’t very tasty. In my experience I’ve found that none of this is true.

  • If only your “View” could be more widespread! Alice is certainly an idealist and I try my best to live up to her ideals. I have been accused of food snobbery and elitism because I want to raise my son to eat according to those ideals. At the very best I would like parents to consider what is they are feeding their children and why, if I disturb them along the way, so be it.

  • What kind of “real world” do people live in who consider eating well to be elitist? Seems a very sad, defeatist kind of reality to me.

  • Thank you so much for putting the philosophy of conscious eaters so well. I am often labeled “picky” by friends and co-workers because I do not want to eat at chain restaurants or stuff myself with processed candy and potato chips. If eating good, healthy, environmentally friendly food is wrong, well then, er, wait, it’s not wrong at all.

  • I agree with Alice’s message, but I do think in some places it has been somewhat corrupted, and some of the local, slow food farm stands have reflected this by raising prices and appearing in wealthier neighborhoods (while ignoring the other ones). I’ve witnessed this in my own city, and it frustrates me. It’s also an unfortunate fact that while good produce doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive, eating well *is* a preoccupation of the elite, and all that special salt and olive oil can’t be found at Wal-Mart. But with small steps and public education, things are changing.

    I do think we would all do well to pause in our criticism of idealists and do more to promote good and nutritious food by reaching out to others by volunteering at food banks, schools, or soup kitchens. Helping to change our status as a fast food nation is not only a matter of educating people about making better choices, it’s also about making the best of what’s available. Even if that fancy olive oil is not an option for some people, a little creativity can go a long way.

    PS: I think the problem with the Amateur Gourmet post is that he criticized his idea of a “working class” mentality. This was a big mistake. Being working-class doesn’t make any difference on one’s feelings about food, and I’ve met plenty of wealthy people who are terrified of changing their (unhealthy) food habits.

  • My boyfriend’s parents think we are elitist food snobs and they are so frustratingly set in their ways. One year we were at their house for Thanksgiving and his mom made everything, but I noticed that she hadn’t made any cranberry sauce and I wanted to contribute something. So we went to the farmer’s market and picked up fresh cranberries. As I stood over the stove stirring the cranberries, his dad walked in and asked what I was making; his reply was “hmph, well, if the canned stuff isn’t good enough for you…” and then just walked off. Sure enough, there was still a plate of the jellied, shaped-like-a-can cranberry “sauce”. Nobody, NOT ONE PERSON, even tried my cranberry sauce. Oh well, my boyfriend and I ate every last bit of it and it was delicious.

    My point is, I think some people are threatened by a new way of eating, because if they admit to themselves that eating fresh, local, organic, pasture-raised food is better for the environment, more nutritious and tastier, they will have to admit that the way they’ve been eating all their lives is wrong. Of course, in the past they didn’t know any better, so who cares, but now there is simply no excuse.

  • I think the real life application is a happy medium. But, if we don’t have some like Alice Waters endorsing the “ideal”, then we lose sight of what things might be and remain satisfied with the status quo.

    Personally, I tend to get annoyed with the idealists who criticize me for my happy medium. We eat plenty of fresh food, but we also have nights where we make chile con queso in the traditional Texas manner: A can of Ro-tel and a big hunk of Velveeta. Sure, I could make it from “real” ingredients, but it’s not what I grew up with and I indulge so rarely that when I do eat it, I want my childhood favorite and not some idealized version. I’ve always thought that one of the benefits of having a healthy diet is that when you aren’t so healthy, it all evens out.

  • Thanks for sharing your view on this. Personally, I’m really enjoying Alice’s latest book – I feel like I’m learning all kinds of little pieces of info that can really make a meal. She might be an idealist, but what fun would the world be without people who have big ideas? How would anything ever get better if we all just operated in the realm of the practical?

  • Liz: I couldn’t agree more. Well…except for the Velveeta. : )

    ape: The words ‘working-class’ I think were meant to suggest more ‘readily-available’ rather than a dig at one segment of society. Like the term ‘white trash’, we toss it around a lot and can be used in a humorous way, or in a more derogatory fashion.

    It was sad that the San Francisco Chronicle began their article in such a poor way. I mean, what was the point of saying that some people hadn’t heard of Alice? Big Friggin’ Deal. Some people can’t find Iraq on a map. That seems more news-worthy to me.

    What’s happening is everyone’s attacking the messenger and not listening to, or blocking out, the message. I just saw Sicko, which really got me thinking, but I recall all the anti-Michael Moore rants in the media I saw of people attacking him and the film. Why not just say, “Gee. Maybe there is something wrong with the US health care system that allows these things to happen? Can we fix the problem?”

    But I think it’s easier (and more diverting) to attack the messenger. In spite of how people feel about Hilary Clinton, she did bring these issues up years ago. And if you ask people who don’t like her why they feel the way they do, the response generally has nothing to do with her message or platforms, and everything to do with something more visceral.

    The good thing about capitalism is that (ideally) it lets the market speak. If people, no matter what their income level or where they live, start requesting and purchasing better-quality foods, they’ll become more available and the price will drop. I just don’t understand the resentment when someone wants to improve the quality of the foods we eat, especially for the next generation.

  • Bravo! It’s sad that people who try to do the right thing gets harassed and called “snob” or whatever. On the other hand, how else would we justify the crap we stuff into our kids — and ourselves?

  • It seems everyone’s already spoken my thoughts for me (from being criticized for my “elitist” food habits to wanting to indulge in the not-so-natural treats from my childhood on an occasional basis.)

    I just wanted to throw my support behind you, David, because I think you’re so so right. America is such a funny little frustrating place at times, and we often sacrifice new and challenging for old and comfortable. *sigh*

    Also, I think it would be a-mazing if you wrote a book on your experiences at Chez Panisse. Because I live in Missouri (can you find THAT on a map? hehe), I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing it firsthand and would love love love to live vicariously through you. :)

  • If I could understand NASCAR, I think I could understand Hot Pockets. I’m close. There was an article in the New Yorker about 5 years ago about the pride SOME people have in low brow things, and the fact that they feel somehow more “real.” (To a very small extent even David writes about enjoying some junk.)

    People who angrily oppose ALL new ideas are the antithesis of an idealist, but they are probably a minority. Alice’s widespread influence has proved that in America there is a huge group of gastronomically uneducated people who will change their shopping and cooking habits.

  • Hi David:

    Yes, I realize this, but unfortunately throwing around terms like that can be just too polarizing, regardless of how innocent the intention was. I read a little further and saw Adam’s apology/clarification, but it seems the damage might have already been done at that point. People are so sensitive about their identities, and within that it can be so hard to effect change. When people feel threatened, they will no longer listen and the information becomes useless. I definitely agree with you about the message/messenger problem – of course, it doesn’t matter if we agree with every idea of an individual advocate, but if we can manage to be solidary about the real issue, some actual changes can happen. It may be a symptom of our over-individualistic culture that makes it so difficult to see the main objective behind its spokesperson du jour.

    Anyway, thanks a lot for bringing this up. It’s good to get it out in the open.

  • What you say is absolutely true.
    We support buying fresh produce locally at a wonderful family owned farm, Ward’s Berry Farm, in Sharon MA and they are always busy. They also sell their own fresh made baked goods as well and other products to support and help other farmers.Their produce is also featured in local restaurants. We also enjoy going to the local orchards for pick-your-own—and there is nothing like that kind of freshness. Yes, supermarkets are definitely a convenience and we have so much selection available, but going to the local seasonal farmer’s market for the freshest helps them and helps our health as well. Perhaps if we all did what Alice Waters espouses, then maybe the healthier eating might lead to fewer chronic conditions, because we might actually have to get up and make our meals instead of quick heating, etc. Besides there are just too many things in processed food that we don’t see or taste, but certainly ingest that aren’t the best for us.

    For the other commentary about the maple syrup, the State of Vermont requires that the real thing have state labeling as it is not only far superior, but exceeds that which is made elsewhere. They actually have laws about this.

  • David, I agree about people’s unnecessarily hostile reactions to Alice Waters’s ideas. The truth is, food like Velveeta that is now considered “working-class” or low-brow is a relatively recent development, and it wasn’t so long ago that everyone, even working-class people, ate seasonal food because that was all there was. For every working-class Velveeta-serving grandmother there’s a working-class grandfather, like mine on Staten Island, who made applesauce from local apples (from his backyard) every fall, being careful to use every single one because You Don’t Waste Good Food. Where I come from (rural upstate NY), families shoot venison and pick their own fruit to freeze for the winter because it makes good economic sense. Local seasonal food is not elitist just because the organic mixed greens at Whole Foods cost $11.99 a pound, or whatever it is they cost.

    Also, I’ve been a lurker till now, so thanks for the site and all. It’s great!

  • and people wonder why Americans are fat?? I live in a college town in the middle of fForida and even our Publix is pretty well stocked, in addition we have 2 weekly farmer’s markets and a Fresh Market store (not as good as Whole Foods by the way); there are options for fresh produce and quality ingredients everywhere if people take the time to look.

    What’s disappointing though for me is whenever I mention that I go to any of these other sources I get strange looks or blank stares, and even worse is when I go to Publix and look in the baskets of my peers. Despite the huge produce section (and growing organic) and healthy options all I ever see are frozen dinners, macaroni and cheese, etc.- basically processed and more processed foods with only the occasional box of out of season strawberries to break the flow of boxed high calorie fabricated foods. Unfortunately these people don’t know any better, our generation (college) was raised right before the Alice Waters wave hit most of the country and were raised by parents who either didn’t cook, didn’t show them how to cook, or relied on hamburger helper and called it a home-cooked meal.

    It’s a slow process to influence the people of these country and convince them of the novelties of local, fresh food and real cooking, along with the enjoyment of truly exceptional meals. Why would we criticize Alice Waters for starting such a positive movement??

  • I think it would help if supermarkets abandoned the notion that poorer people prefer unhealthy foods. I live in a lower-income urban neighborhood, and what’s the first thing I see when I walk into the local Safeway? Yep, a giant frozen foods section that takes up most of the store. Even the produce section abounds with impulse items, like individual bags of chips, that hang in all sorts of random spots. A couple weeks ago I went there to get ground beef for tacos and the leanest they had was 80/20.

    It wouldn’t make sense to stock the store with pricey organic items that won’t sell, but I don’t see why they can’t have some equivalently-priced healthier items and make fresh ingredients the focal point of the store. People would still go there, since there aren’t that many options when it comes to local groceries, and maybe they’d be encouraged to buy better stuff.

    Education is great, but putting attractive fresh ingredients in front of someone is probably an even more effective strategy in getting them to eat better. In stores like Whole Foods and Wegmans the produce aisle is spacious and beautiful, inviting people to buy fresh peaches instead of the ones in a can. We’re much more likely to pluck a perfect golden apple from an attractive display than from a pile of half-rotten fruit tucked in an inconvenient corner of the store.

  • I agree with everything you said about the wonderful changes that have happened in our food supply (and Alice would be a contributor to that fact). There seems to be a new awareness about where our food comes from and farmer’s markets are popping up everywhere, encouraging us to eat fresh and locally.

    Boxed cereal is priced very high,yes, but I must say, much of the good quality food is also. I don’t feel that these foods are within reach to the average family as yet. Many items are priced double.

    I personally work around this by growing my own veggies and buying when there is a large quantity of an item in season (like when we get bombed with tomatoes or zucchini), but, sad to say, the really great quality foods are still too steep for me sometimes. Let’s hope that changes in the future.

  • When my then 7 year old son was asked if he liked Eggs McMuffins, he said, “I don’t know. I’ve never had one. Are they anything like eggs Benedict?”–thus establishing long ago my food snob credentials in my family. They thought I’d ruined the kid.

  • Wonderful post.

    I’m talking from a British perspective, and I’m delighted that people are finally waking up to what has been happening to food since the rise of the supermarkets and fast food outlets. I grew up eating natural, seasonal food (my parents were teachers but also had a smallholding – so we had much of our own meat, dairy and eggs, besides vegetables and fruit), so I suppose I’ve always been conscious of the ethics behind the food we eat and carried that into my adult life.

    I counter the “organic/ethical is too expensive/elitist/a luxury” argument every day with impassioned explanations of how it is perfectly possible to eat well and ethically on a budget if you know how to cook. I live in an area rich in honesty boxes, butchers who will provide the cheaper cuts of meat (organic pork hocks for £1 because no one knows what to do with them), along with cheap and seasonal game, fresh fish such as mackerel, good co-operatives and farm shops – and it’s always been like this here, it’s not seen as a faddish, trendy middle class thing, but a way of life which redresses some of the balance of power between producer and supermarket.

    As for going forward, it’s been proven time and time again that children will be much more inclined to eat what’s in front of them if they’ve had a hand in growing and/or cooking it. So kill birds with one stone – provide the education. Teach children about food *properly* from an early age instead of making them spend food tech lessons analysing nutritional information and designing ready meals, and the rest should follow.

    I’m full of admiration for the holistic approach Alice Waters has taken regarding food education – I wish it was happening everywhere.

  • David,
    Dead on!

  • It’s funny because in all the years I worked at Chez Panisse, I never thought of Alice as an elitist: she was simply interested in procuring the best-tasting food. It was pretty remarkable in a business where the bottom-line is always looming ominously.

    As Karla mentioned (busted!…), I eat a few goofy things (Mallomars and York Peppermint Patties come to mind, and don’t get me started on my love of those sugary-pink marshmallow Peeps). But I try to balance it heavily in favor of regular foods like fruits, vegetables, chocolate, meat, cheese, fish, bread, etc…with the recent exception of Heidi’s Mesquite Chocolate Chip Cookies, which I’m now officially addicted to.

    A lot of stores are filled with junk food, including my beloved Mallomars, which is the difference between France and the US—although that’s changing. It’s unfortunate that low-income area shops, as Caroline in DC mentioned, there isn’t reasonably-priced ‘normal’ foods like apples, oatmeal, etc…But stores exist because people buy what they offer. So if people start requesting certain things, which I used to do at my supermarket in San Francisco, maybe they’ll start stocking them.

    I buy regular and organic foods, but in general, my priority is to try to patronize smaller specialty businesses rather than supermarkets. Which, admittedly, is perhaps easier here than elsewhere.

    And I’d love to grow my own foods, but I don’t know where to find Peeps-seeds!

  • Hmm.. I am one of those in the other camp.

    Your post was informative, enlightening, and nudged my opinion of Alice Waters to be slightly more neutral (from a bit looney). You are right in that we need visionaries in order to achieve progress. I see your point.

    I think that good food is already available to everyone. Most big cities have farmers markets. We can argue about how widely available it is, but I am not going there. People who share my view point are not taking aim at Alice Waters for wanting greater choice for healthier eating.

    Let’s take the abstract notion of an object called O. Then we have the notion of something better called O+. Sometimes people want the better object. Sometimes they’re satisfied with O and don’t need the upgrade to O+; the mere notion of it thus suggesting O

  • And I’d love to grow my own foods, but I don’t know where to find Peeps-seeds!

    Silly boy. Peeps are grown from spores, not seeds…

  • Great post!! People needed the clarification. I definitely appreciate Alice Waters. I met her in person a couple weeks ago in Chicago. She was here to meet with the mayor about opening up more Edible Schoolyards in Chicago! Of course I blogged about meeting her, she is truly inspirational.

  • I completely agree with what is being said here. Pardon me if someone has already mentioned this, but I think the issue is not just about the expense of seasonal food. It is about the American need for fast and easy. Seasonal foods are wonderful, but they don’t come pre-prepared, generally. I think people are intimidated by the thought of actually cooking, and the idea that we don’t have enough time is reinforced by advertisers of prepared food. Shopping for seasonal foods can also mean more trips to the store and Farmer’s Markets, and thus more time. I have made time in my life, but I am not working two jobs and trying to raise children.

  • I live in an area of LA where mom-and-pop Korean, Armenian, and Latino corner markets abound. The produce isn’t usually organic, but it’s fresh, abundant, varied, RIPE, and really, really inexpensive compared to the supermarkets or the weekly farmer’s markets (best deal ever, butternut squash 9 cents a pound). Sometimes you’re pretty certain the tangerines or plums came off of someone’s backyard tree. The customers are far from wealthy, and most speak a first language other than English, but they eat fruits and vegetables and herbs and dried beans and all kinds of spices at a rate that frightens middle Americans. It’s the real slow food movement.

    More important than the food is the way they treat each other. When you walk in, you quickly realize that almost everyone in the store has known each other and the shopkeepers forever, they’re nearly family. When you shop there, they make you welcome too. Very old country, and the absolute opposite of snobbery. By contrast, how many supermarket clerks and customers would ever admit they know each other socially?

  • Growing up in the East Bay, from immigrant parents, it didn’t occur to me that how we ate was different than the rest of suburbia until I was in high school. The ingredients were always fresh, and homemade by my parents. Heck we even bought live squab and did all the stinky dirty work. Yuck. My parents were not use to the convenience of store cakes unless it came from a Chinatown bakery. We had a few convenience foods like Kraft’s Mac N Cheese for my brother, or I would make Rice Crispy treats. My husband was raised by a single woman and they didn’t have a lot of money but he remembers his mother cooking fresh foods for him and yes she did use canned veggies, it was a more reasonable cost in the winter.

    I commend Alice Waters for changing the views of good fresh varied produce to the masses. Idealists are great for bringing in new views and expecting more from our stores.

  • David,

    I couldn’t agree more with your analysis and your conclusion.

    From a more personal standpoint (that of a French living in New York, kind of the opposite of you David :-), I love this country because of people like Alice Waters or Michael Pollan who have no interest in the status quo and act to leave a better world to the next generation. And it all starts with changing the way we eat and educate our children (and their taste by the way) as the consequences on our health and the environment are so dramatic.

    Some complain about the cost of organic and seasonal ingredients. I hear them but I think that the customers are also citizens and can make a difference with their votes. We know that changing the Farm Bill(not only in the US by the way), among other things, to encourage the production of healthy food instead of corn is definitely a necessary step.

    As far as cooking vs. eating junk food. Well, I appreciate the former can be time consuming but that’s the only option to eat good and sustainable food on a regular basis.

  • Amazing post. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said.

    I’m in La Jolla, CA for school right now but I’m from San Francisco, and my heart will always be in San Francisco and Berkeley. I love Berkeley. This summer I ate at Chez Panisse for the first time, and everything Alice Waters is about, everything you said, is apparent the minute you taste the food. We do need more people like Alice Waters because people like her can and will change the world, just like she has.

  • I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned this yet, but besides the wonderful insights, I would like to thank you for sharing a little bit about your time with Alice Waters. I realize that in trying to respect her privacy it is important to generally leave her out of your blog, but as someone who has been closely following the discussion on the Amateur Gourmet, and as a native to the Bay Area, I felt it was nice to hear someone defend her. Especially someone who knew her well. As you said she may not have needed it, but it was helpful nonetheless!

  • Yeah, David!

    I will always remember how the other kids at school laughed at me because I had “leaves in my food” (they were curry leaves, from my parents’ tree) and ate black bread (pumpernickel). I find it so ironic that now I’m considered an elitist by the same people who once laughed at my humble, smelly immigrant food while they were lined up to microwave their hot-pockets.

    The mainstream? Not a place you want to be.

  • I apologize for the length of this “comment”, but you have struck a note close to my heart.

    Alice Waters is my rock star. I remember my Grandmother, who lived in Concord, CA, telling me about Chez Panisse when I was little. She was thrilled that someone (Alice) promoted eating real food, local food, which reflected the seasons and promoted family unity. Families rarely bond over that 9-minute microwave blast on their Swanson’s frozen dinners, but they do spend precious time together when one person makes the salad, one sets the table, one helps drain the pasta, and on, when preparing to eat a real meal together.

    Alice influenced my grandmother, who influenced my mom, and I was lucky enough to grow up in a household of four kids and two working parents, who cooked and ate dinner together every night. We didn’t have money for convenience foods, so we bought things like potatoes and rice, and vegetables and fruit, and ground beef and raw chicken, and we had beautiful meals.

    Eating well is not elitist, and it is not too expensive for anyone who can afford a hot pocket every day for lunch. It is a matter of survival, and you can choose to influence your life (and lifespan) in a positive or negative way, based on how you feed yourself.

    The real problem is that people no longer know how to cook. It’s a basic skill that has been bred out of two generations of people in this country, rich and poor. Alice Waters understands this, and her edible schoolyards attempt to bring children (and eventual parents) back to a place where they can genuinely feed themselves, and not depend on a conglomerate to do it for them.

    Alice influenced my grandmother, who influenced my mom, who influenced me, my two brothers and my sister. We have in turn begun to teach our spouses, children and extended families the beauty of eating real, seasonal, local foods, and I can thank her for the Whole Foods down the street and the masses of people at my local farmers market.

    I can only hope that among the few belligerently ignorant souls who criticize her message, there is at least one parent who heard her, and decided to make something from scratch for their family’s dinner tonight.

  • p.s. David, speaking of influences, those chocolate chip-pecan cookies that my daughter loves so much? Those are yours. Thank you for your lovely influence as well…

  • J.Bo: You’re the silly one!

    Here’s where Peeps come from.

    (Unless it’s a phony plot to divert us from where they’re really from…)

  • David… it is all so simple isn’t it?

    We just deserve good simple food.

    My Italian mother-in-law taught me, “spend more time shopping and less time cooking.”

    She lived through the war, lost her first husband during the war, remarried and had two kids and no money in a depression after the war here in Italy.

    There was always food on the table, not a lot maybe, but always good food.

    Americans are so lucky, we produce can produce so much food, but unfortunately people are pushed for lower prices and quantity instead of quality.

    You get what you pay for.
    And although it bugs me to pay $5 at SF’s Ferry Plaza for a loaf of bread, it is real bread and the person that made it and drove all the way down to sell it also deserves to make a decent living.

    Merci David!

    http://marshmallowpeeps.org/paris/ loved this!
    sorry don’t know how to html link here!

  • Thanks! David as I tell many people my Mom was my cooking inspiration as a child, she being French was appalled by the state of food here in America when we moved from Europe in 1969! No leeks nothing not even a shallot, something as a chef I take for granted, but I think we still need to try to cook in season rather than raid the world market for out of season vegetables or fruit! The food in the states has jumped leaps and bounds, still junk food is still prevalent, people stay home and cook, support the farmers!

  • I agree – 110% – with everything in your post, David: there is nothing elitist about liking good food, and it’s absolutely possible to eat good food and still be on a budget.

    BUT I’m no longer convinced that locally grown food is necessarily better for the environment – unless I’m ready to settle for months and months of root vegetables, it takes an awful lot more energy to grow fresh vegetables in cold northern climates than it does a little further south (see the interesting Globe and Mail article here on this topic) – and I’m also increasingly aware of the consequences for growers in other parts of the world of my desire to eat really fresh food: I was born in New Zealand, a country where 10% of the population derives its livelihood from farming, and which has been selling frozen lamb to the European market for over 100 years. New Zealand farmers (whether of livestock or fruits and vegetables) suffer when we decide to only eat locally; and the same is true of growers in other countries – often much poorer than New Zealand. And to add to my confusion, my greengrocer in Paris assured me that his supplier at Rungis found that it was much easier to get a high quality product working with NZ fruit growers than with French ones (I don’t know whether this fruit was flown in – if so the carbon footprint would have been huge).

    So, although I don’t think that anything can beat locally grown seasonal produce in terms of taste, and I’m confident that the carbon footprint of locally field-grown vegetables has got to be less than that of those which are trucked or flown in from elsewhere, I *am* now feeling ethically conflicted about my general food purchasing patterns…particularly in the winter months!

  • Anyone who thinks that eating good-quality food is more expensive is deluding themselves. I know so many people who say they can’t afford local, welfare-conscious and or organic produce, but will then buy ice cream, chocolate/candy bars, sweets, soft drinks, biscuits, cakes and so on.

    If you cut out crisps (or chips, depending on where you’re from!), start drinking only (tap) water, don’t buy sweets and candy, have fruit for dessert instead of cakes and puddings, and reserve chocolate and ice cream as very occaisional treats, then you’ll cut a HUGE portion of your food bill away! And that can be spent on local, fresh and even organic produce.

  • Applause !!
    (I love Alice and I still remember my stop at Chez Panisse, yummy )

  • Vicky: That’s pretty funny about your French produce merchant saying it was easier to deal with people in New Zealand than in their own country.

    Claire: Yes, it’s pretty shocking how expensive all those funky foods are. I mean, I just paid almost $6 for a box of puffed rice, for heaven’s sake. I could’ve bought a nice sack of vegetables, fruits, or cheese for that. (But I couldn’t make Rice Krispie treats out of those.) Still, it’s funny how people complain about the price of good-quality foods when stuff like chips and stuff are astronomically expensive.

    KateC: It does take more time to cook, but it’s the clean-up that kills me. If you have 2 kids, that’s 2 people to wash dishes! ; )

    Still, in the states, it’s so much easier to shop than it is here. Things are open 24/7 and on Sundays (so if you need a lemon at 10pm, it’s no problem.) Whereas in France the hours are much shorter and if you work during the day, you can only go to the outdoor markets on the weekends, when they’re much busier. I don’t know how people do it here. I guess that’s why frozen foods are becoming more popular in France.

    Max: Yes, I don’t really talk much about Alice or Chez Panisse, since I left there a while back. But I don’t think people want to hear the dirt out there. Right?

    (Just kidding!) In actuality it was a positive experience and I’m so glad I got to work there for as long as I did. What I learned about cooking and ingredients was invaluable.

  • RIGHT ON DAVID!

  • I agree with everything you’ve said, David, and have enjoyed the thoughtful discussion that followed. Fascinating –and important –stuff.

  • Look, I love Alice, and appreciate everything she has done for food in this country, having lived in Berkeley for a while (but wasn’t thrilled too much with Cafe Fanny, but that’s another topic…)

    I think, though, that I have raised issue before with people making blanket statements that seem to insinuate that “all” of us in the US were eating processed crap, and produce that tasted like plastic, before she came on the scene. Granted, I was lucky because my family immigrated from Italy, and had and has good cooks in the family, and learned how to grow some of their own produce from day one…but still, I remember roadside stands with delicious local corn, tomatoes, fresh cherries (yes, fresh and local!), raspberries, blueberries, which we bought and consumed when I was young, and I grew up in the sixties and seventies.

    Was I lucky? Yes…was I so unique? I am not so convinced at all…I knew many families that ate like we did growing up…I am far from the only American with immigrant family from areas of the world that cared and insisted upon fresh produce and meats.

    God bless Alice for making the push for fresh and local more widespread, but not everyone in the US was eating styrofoam produce in the seventies, and that is why I am not so thrilled when the food community seems to claim otherwise.

  • So, tomatoes with actual flavor are ‘elitist’ while a Happy Meal at McDonald’s is ‘normal.’ I think the marketers have won. I’ve got to admire anyone who’s fighting back.

  • Yes.

    Yes. Yes.

    We have so many stubborn notions of food in this culture, where eating well is elitist, and eating junk food and jello salad with slivers of cabbage inside is our notion of family. Luckily, I really think things are changing. slowly. But they are changing.

    In so many ways, this is what my book is about — learning to eat local, in season, fresh and direct from the farmers when possible. My book is about falling in love with food, and not just about gluten-free.

    Ten years ago, I had never heard of half the foods that I eat regularly now. People don’t like change, but they are missing all the joy of discovery.

    Still, I remember that plastic tubes of tomatoes, the iceberg lettuce in plastic wrap. That was my childhood. The choices are so much wider now.

    I thanked Alice Waters in my page of acknowledgments.

    (And of course, after going to Italy on our honeymoon, I understand tangibly how much easier this could all be.)

    Thank you, David. As always.

  • Didn’t see the show, but have heard this refrain over and over (and have probably said it myself in another life). If idealists don’t live in the real world, especially the ones who are trying to feed us, we gotta ask, So what have we done to the real world?

    Several years ago, during my early attempts to come out from under the rubble of the culinary status quo that was, I said to my mother (probably somewhat imperiously), Mom, your parents ate organic. Your kids do not.

    Those few decades, where we saw the rise and eventual domination of chemical farming, confined animal operations, and the nutritional nightmare of the fast food industry, don’t have to define the real world forever. We can take it back and resuscitate it.

    The message, however, can’t be rammed down people’s throats. I think the way Alice Waters presents her message is just fine. She can’t do all of the jobs, only some of the jobs. It’s up to the rest of us to start grabbing the baton as it gets passed.

  • Hooray for your view! Hooray for Alice! THANK YOU for writing this wonderful post! xo

  • I went to a Market Brunch at North Pond a couple of weeks ago in Chicago where Alice was the guest speaker. We had 4 courses, and at the second course; (Soft Boiled Farm Egg, Braised Pork Belly and Cranberry Bean Ragout, Watercress) my boyfriend cut his egg in half and said, “How do you get an egg that perfect??!!” Everyone at the table smiled and cut their egg to find their own perfect prize.

    He commented afterward on the drive home (we live about 3 hours south in Champaign) that Alice was not a polished public speaker, but her passion really inspired him to eat differently. I have been preaching forever and she spoke for 10 minutes and changed someone who would just as soon eat pop tarts and never give it a second thought. I have been reading her book and have recommitted to shopping/cooking like I did years ago. That is pretty powerful stuff for ten minutes air time.

  • No time to read all the other replies, but I whole-heartedly agree with your “view”. I have known about her foundation for better meals in schools for some time, and I think the government should get behind forward thinkers like this so that future generations can learn how to eat healthy and delicious food. We’re such reverse-snobs sometimes. Remember when Kerry was an elitist because he could speak French? It’s insane.

  • I just spent a good 15 minutes engrossed in your article and all the wonderful observations and comments that followed it. Really by this point I’m just repeating what others have said, but as another Washington DC resident I wanted to post a link the the Washington Post’s story about eating healthily on an extreme budget: here

    Mind you, there is no free range organic chicken on the list, but steel cut oats, whole grain bread and plenty of fruit and vegetables make an appearance. And as far as free range chicken goes, I just buy a whole one and cut it up-so much cheaper than boneless skinless breasts. And the uber-cheap packs of organic chicken backs and necks make the best home made chicken soup and stock-and are extremely cheap.

    Anyways, I agree with those arguing that the real “normal” and “mainstream” way of eating has for a long time been eating fresh produce that you either grew yourself or bought locally. It is only in the past several generations that this has changed in the USA.

    With the industrialization of the agricultural sector, it became unusual for people to grow their own vegetables or fruits in their back yards. At the same time, the new social order stereotyped farmers as mentally challenged overalls wearing hicks with straws in their mouth. Buying processed foods was a sign that you were wealthy enough to not have to grow your own or eat unpackaged foods-only the poor were forced to do that! Ironically, this attitude has now been completely reversed.

    Luckily for us though, there are plenty of idealists out there doing their bit to prove that regardless of your economic position in life, you don’t have to survive on deep fried fast food or over-processed goods. In Washington DC, even those living on the streets get a chance to eat organic, locally grown food, as the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market donates left over produce to this wonderful organization, which not only provides meals for homeless shelters across the city, but also has a culinary training program and teaching healthy cooking and eating to low income and homeless residents of the city.

    All I can say is BRAVO for the idealists and keep up the great work!