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.
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.