It’s around the table and in the preparation of food that we learn about ourselves and about the world.–Alice Waters
Our next Pilot Fish Trailblazer nominee has dedicated her life to food activism. Why food?
The answer is simple: food is at the heart of everything we do. As the great food writer, MFK Fisher once said, “First we eat, then we do everything else.” Food has been a life-long passion for Alice Waters, food pioneer and visionary, who over the past 40 years has revolutionized what and how we eat. Her way of thinking about food—eat locally and sustainably and shop at farmer’s markets—has become so mainstream that it may be hard to remember what the American food scene was like before Alice Waters.
For those of you who grew up eating sushi or baguettes, it may be difficult for you to envision the enormous shift in American dining habits and sensibilities since the 1960’s. But I invite you to do a little time traveling and go back with me to the American food wasteland fifty years ago where there was one type of lettuce in the grocery store (iceberg), and one kind of mushroom (white). Dinner consisted of meat or fish bought home from the grocery store, frozen, defrosted, and grilled. Potatoes were boiled, scalloped or baked. Vegetables came out of a can or out of the freezer. Swanson’s TV dinners were a novelty and the only people who ate pasta were Italian Americans. School lunches featured bologna or boiled ham on Wonder Bread slathered with mayonnaise and people went to McDonald’s and Howard Johnson’s for a little fast food excitement.
Eating out in family-style restaurants was reserved for special occasions, and the height of refinement was French cuisine—only French. (Apparently to most Americans, haute cuisine didn’t exist in other countries.) In this rarefied, continental atmosphere, the maître d’s uniform was a tuxedo and the chef (who made a special appearances for important guests) wore a starched white chef’s jacket and a towering tocque. The menu (like the one below from Lutèce) was filled with French dishes that “ordinary” people never ate—like vichyssoise and escargot. Other exotic ingredients were shipped long distances and arrived frozen. The writer Calvin Trillin jokingly suggests that the food, which was called “continental,” came in fact from one continent—Antartica, because it was still in a frozen block when the chef was preparing to cook it.
But then, in 1971, a young, somewhat idealistic, 23-year old Alice Waters arrived on the American food scene. She was a Berkeley graduate, inspired by the political activist, Mario Savio, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). From Mario she absorbed the lesson of the power of the individual to take political action to bring about change.
Then, after spending a year in France, she fused political action with food activism by opening a restaurant with a bold new philosophy of food, inspired by her love of the Parisian farmer’s markets, its fresh food bursting with flavor, and meals prepared simply and expertly. In France, she also learned the power of food to inspire and to bring friends together around a table, sharing a meal and talking for hours. She loved the sense of community, of camaraderie in Parisian cafes and homes.
This is the power of gathering: it inspires us, delightfully, to be more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful: in a word, more alive.~Alice Waters
Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, was founded on these principles over 42 years ago and its doors are still open to everyone who appreciates good food, grown locally, and prepared expertly.
I wanted people to come to the restaurant and feel at home, so I put it in a house–Alice Waters
Photo by Stu Spivak (Pizetta) Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons
Her taste in food is eclectic. If you go to her restaurant in Berkeley, California one day you might eat Cuscus alla trapanese–Sicilian-style fish and shellfish stew cooked in the café fireplace with saffron and almonds, and on the next day a spit-roasted chicken with creamy chanterelles, chicories, and shoestring potatoes, or even homemade pizza cooked on a brick oven–created by an Italian craftsman especially for Alice.
For over 40 years, Chez Panisse and Alice Waters have earned dozens of awards as her food movement has taken hold. Alice is the only woman to receive the James Beard Chef of the Year Award. Her activism has also expanded to include her leadership role in the Slow Food Movement and her Edible Schoolyard Project, which teaches schoolchildren about growing healthy food and good eating in over 1,000 schools across the country. She has also mentored and inspired generations of chefs, including Rick Bayless, David Chang, and Stephanie Alexander, and the food journalist Michael Pollan.
The way we subsidize food makes it cheaper to go to McDonald’s and get a hamburger than a salad, and that’s insane. It’s pure government policy.–Alice Waters
Calvin Trillin has nicknamed Alice “the Emma Goldman of New American cuisine.” Even though her philosophy seems far from radical today, that just may be because many of us now share Alice’s vision of good, healthy food, grown locally and sustainably, and prepared expertly.
So what do you think? Do you give Alice your vote (one fork or two) for our Pilot Fish Trailblazer Award?
More about Alice:
- Interview on Makers.com: http://www.makers.com/alice-waters
- Terri Gross speaks to Alice Waters on NPR http://www.npr.org/2011/08/22/139707078/alice-waters-40-years-of-sustainable-food
- Books by Alice:
- The Chez Panisse Café Cookbook
- The Art of Simple Food
Have a great week, everyone, and as Alice would say, “Bon appétit!”
This is the fifth in a series of articles about forward thinkers who are helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. These remarkable people are helping to define the future direction of their community, country, and even our global society. To read more about the Pilot Fish Trailblazer Awards and the nominees Dr. Fred Sanger, Paolo Soleri, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Jane Goodall, click on the embedded links. Suggest new nominees in the comments section below.
Categories: Pilot Fish Trailblazer Awards