The Mother of California Cuisine is still fighting for food that means something

By Bliss Bowen

Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters visits Santa Monica this week

When you consider the food on your plate, what do you see: Microwaved fuel ready to be pumped into your body in a rush, or thoughtfully prepared sustenance shaped by human hands from the bounty of the natural environment?

Such are the considerations Alice Waters brought to the national table after founding Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley in 1971. Named after a character in Marcel Pagnol’s films, the restaurant’s convivially elegant milieu and nightly fixed-price menu manifested both Waters’ political beliefs and the Slow Food culture that the future winner of France’s Legion of Honor brought home from her travels. Waters and fellow “intellectual gastronomes” applied intense thought to creative kitchen improvisations — revolutionary at the time, as was the concept of organic food and eating with discernment.

The self-described sensualist’s new book “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook” evokes fragrant meals in France where she was “awakened to taste,” colorfully depicts an “egalitarian” Georgian farmers market, and wryly shares her “big culinary secret” of substituting cognac or Grand Marnier for vanilla extract when she was first learning to cook. But rather than recipes, the unabashed Francophile discusses how food became her way of restoring the humanity she felt was being decimated by industrialized food production and consumerism. An encounter with a cheesemaker in the Pyrenees proves revelatory:

“The shepherd called his sheepdogs to round up the sheep, and they all came running down the mountainside. Then he milked every one of them over the course of several hours, poured all the milk into a big pot on the fire, and formed the cheese with his hands in the warm milk. The work is unbelievable — he ended up with just one single cheese from all of that labor. I loved that you could watch the sheep eating the clover in the morning, then taste the clover in the milk when you drank it at night. The next morning we’d have the ricotta from that milk — the shepherd served it with rosehip jam that his grandmother made from the wild roses from the Pyrenean mountainside.”

Waters makes a key observation about the reference guide “Larousse Gastronomique”: “I was fascinated by the process of French cooking, but the book showed, too, that food is about more than cooking; it’s about geography, history, agriculture, tradition, art, anthropology — and nature, of course. It’s something very sophisticated and deep; it’s about culture.”

That efficiently summarizes the burgeoning food philosophy that separated Waters from disdained hippie contemporaries in 1960s counterculture. “Coming to My Senses” traces the development of her consciousness — how the Free Speech Movement and the hypercharged political atmosphere informed her opinions about broader realms of culture. Bach, the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, and mounting protests against the Vietnam War form the backing soundtrack as the romantic girl comes of age as a liberated woman and thinker.

While enjoyable to read, her book is flawed in that Waters’ love of postcards is often symbolic of her writing’s depth. For at least the first half of the book’s attractively laid-out pages, she seems demandingly imperious — though she does acknowledge her insensitivity. She helpfully italicizes certain sections to signify time shifts, but her stream-of-consciousness approach can be difficult to track. Her Edible Schoolyard project receives scant mention, and the absence of an index is frustrating.

But it does remain clear that the National Humanities Medal winner and James Beard Award-decorated chef, who says she’s “best as an editor of a dish,” is still valiantly championing Slow Food culture against daunting odds — 45 years after introducing it. The struggle to make urban food deserts, biodiversity and sustainable agriculture part of the national conversation goes on, a sad fact alluded to in the book’s final pages:

“I was deeply disillusioned about politics, and by opening the restaurant, I really thought that I was dropping out … But it became political. Because as it turned out, food is the most political thing in all our lives … the decisions we make about what we eat have daily consequences. And those daily consequences can change the world.”

 

Alice Waters converses with LA Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 4, in the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater at New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. $20-$95. Call (310) 828-5582 or visit livetalksla.org.

 

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