29 October 2010

Alice Waters, the Eat Local Movement, and One Very Bright Kid

Having just returned from a 5-day gastronomic vacation* to Northern and Central California, and with the memory of a perfect meal at Chez Panisse still caressing my brain, I have been thinking again (always!) about good, honest, sustainable food and how important it is that we all pay attention to the subject.

Readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of Alice Waters. She first fell in love with the French sensibility of appreciating the world around us through the use of our five senses, when she studied in France as an impressionable college student. Eight years after Alice opened Chez Panissse, I went through the exact same kind of revelation, during my own college year in France. Although I didn't know about Alice at the time, she has become one of my heros over the last 30+ years. (Read a previous post about this, here.)

A few months ago, I read Thomas McNamee's book, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, and then Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, An Eater's Manifesto, both of which got me fired up about the food and wine experiences we had planned for our California trip.

I will write another post about the amazing food we saw and ate during our trip, including that perfect dinner at Chez Panisse, but today I want to focus on the back-to-nature food movement of recent years. Several factions have worked simultaneously over the years to bring this revolution about, and Alice Waters has been from the beginning, and still is in the forefront of this consciousness raising food revolution. In fact, one could argue that without Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, the movement would not be where it is today. Alice Waters has been - not solely, but in large part - responsible for educating an entire nation about the dangers of genetically modified food by-products, carcinogenic pesticides and poisonous fertilizers. She maintains that truly good food is not for the elite, but for everyone.

When Alice returned to California, after her year abroad in 1965, she began cooking for herself and her friends, using locally raised food, just as she had seen at the French food markets. Her idea, in 1971, to open a restaurant with good home cooking, using local ingredients was definitely counterculture at that time. And it was only through sticking to their original instincts that the gang at Chez Panisse could keep the restaurant going throughout years of barely making enough money to survive. Why? Because their customers recognized and appreciated top quality food, served by a friendly staff, in a homey atmosphere...and they kept coming back for it.

Today, Chez Panisse has been called one the finest restaurants, not just in America, but also in the world. Their food is not "blow your doors off" style. It is not presented as an avant garde art installation on a plate. But what makes it so good is Alice's and her staff's commitment to the best quality, freshly picked, local, perfectly cooked and seasoned "just right" food. Rather than wow diners with how unusual the food is, the restaurant presents its customers with simply delicious meals - food that tastes the way Nature intended it to! 

Another major force preaching the same tenets is Slow Food International. One of my favorite philosophical movements, Slow Food has been responsible for educating people about local, honest food since 1989. (Read my previous posts on Slow Food here and here.) Now with chapters in over 150 countries, Alice Waters is vice president of the organization (although it did start in Italy without her, contrary to what some may think.) Slow Food speaks openly about what Alice Waters exemplifies in her restaurant: that good food should be gently prepared to bring out its natural flavor and should be consumed slowly and with deep appreciation for the food as well as for the company sharing a meal. Slow Food represents a return to a lifestyle many have forgotten in this fast-paced world. It's just the way Alice Waters has always lived.

It's true, Alice has her detractors - those who say she takes too much personal credit for this food revolution. Yet, while Alice is not alone responsible for the sustainable food movement(s) of the past couple of decades, no one can deny that she has been the most vocal and hard pushing American proponent for the theme, which would not be where it is today without her. Her Edible Schoolyard project; her persistence, through several administrations, in trying to get a vegetable garden at the White House (which the Obamas have done!); her constant presence in the media advocating for better quality fresh, organic food; her never-ending talk about better gardening/farming practices; her public efforts to save heirloom fruits, vegetables and meats from extinction; her encouragement of farmers markets... I could go on and on. Thanks to YouTube, you can still watch the CBS segment that "60 Minutes" did on Alice, here.

Some of Alice's critics also say that she takes too much credit for inventing California Cuisine, which goes hand in hand with the concept of only using fresh, local, seasonable food. Be that as it may, there is no way California - or for that matter all contemporary American - cuisine would exist without her. She started out with hippie ideals in the '70's and has never wavered from her principles. We are ALL incredibly lucky to have such a strong advocate for our health, our enjoyment of real food, and for our future.

Over the years, the back-to-good-food movement has gained lots of supporters and proponents, such as Michael Pollan. I recommend all of his books. His In Defense of Food, An Eater's Manifesto was a real eye-opener, even for a longtime foodie like me. Every American should read this - after all, what could possibly be more important than what we put into our bodies for nourishment, as well as for pleasure? Genetically modified, chemical laden "food" by-products are making us sick and even die. Pollan's premise is that these are not REAL foods.

I also recommend the movie, FOOD, Inc., by Robert Kenner. Another eye-opener about how most of this nation's "food" is produced.

And a foodie friend on Facebook just recommended two others to me, which I have not yet seen: King Corn and The Future of Food, both of which now are on my Netflix list, so I'll let you know about them eventually.

Certainly the youngest, and therefore in a way, the most interesting proponent of the "eat local" movement is eleven-year-old Birke Baehr, one amazingly bright and mature (and absolutely cute!) kid. Birke recently gave a TEDx talk on the subject of our food supply and what we need to do about it. This is such a great talk on so many levels. Do yourself a big favor and WATCH his talk! (I found out about it in an email from Alice Waters - there she goes again!)

What I think is most important, though, is that Birke and others like him will lead our next generation into an era of better consciousness about the food we grow, sell and ingest. I'm going to be watching for more to come from this terrific and eloquent young man.

* I should note that, while our vacations only occasionally get planned as gastronomic tours, they somehow always end up that way. We see a farmers market - we ask the tram driver to stop and let us out. We hear about a little hole-in-the-wall French bistro that has great mussels - we just have to check it out. Well, you get the picture! Next post: our recent food and wine adventures in San Francisco and Arroyo Grande. (I'm getting hungry just thinking about it!)
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