Note: Alice Waters’ Sept. 24 appearance at the National Writers Series is sold out, but Waters will speak at the State Theatre on Wednesday, Sept. 20, following a 7 p.m. showing of The Baker’s Wife and the unveiling of Groundwork’s new Farm to School video. Tickets are available for a bargain price of $10.
Hot tea steeped in fresh mint leaves picked from a nearby garden. Poured into glasses caressed by deliberate hands at the white-linen-clothed table. Focused, engaging conversation about food, simple recipes, local and organically grown ingredients, education, travel, politics, our relationship to the land and to our farmers, and how food finds its way—or doesn’t—into our popular culture. Each new thought spurred by the kiss of fresh mint.
My afternoon interview with Alice Waters, hero to the local food movement, is interrupted temporarily by the sound of a blender whirring in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, her famed Berkeley restaurant. Cooks are preparing the evening courses before guests begin to arrive for dinner at 5 PM.
“I don’t mind,” I tell her. But, mildly embarrassed, Waters retreats to the kitchen and asks the staff to wait until after our interview to resume using the blender. She returns to the table, takes her seat and fills my tea glass. The restaurant is quiet and the only sounds now come through open windows—songbirds crooning from nearby eucalyptus trees and a handful of local high school students walking up Shattuck Avenue to tour Chez Panisse. No surprise there. Educating students, and inspiring them to enjoy what they eat, are key tenets of Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project.
Good meals should be explored and enjoyed slowly, Waters says. A dinner with friends should prompt deep conversation and musing about art, travel, politics or current events. Loud noises—be they from blenders or boom boxes—shouldn’t distract from the common eating experience.
“I don’t think there should be loud music in restaurants. It’s alienating. It prevents conversation, and I think we need that conversation. We need to talk to each other. Fast-food culture would like us to just drink and eat as much as we can. If we have to talk, that interferes with us chowing down.”
To hear Alice Waters explain her relationship with food is to understand that she’s an activist as much as she is a cook, an author, a restaurant owner and a celebrity whose influence helped convince former First Lady Michelle Obama to have a vegetable garden planted on the South Lawn of the White House.
“As we learn more about global warming and the damage we’re causing to the environment, we also long for a connection to people,” says Waters. “We need to break out of being stuck in our computer world. Just like the communication happening around the world through music, the same thing is happening with food.
“Showing people the connection between where they’re getting their food and what comes out on their plate—that’s a radical act.”
Waters reflects on the radical 1960s, when she arrived in Berkeley, joined peace marches and eventually opened Chez Panisse in 1971 and advocated for a local food movement in the United States. This after traveling to France and falling in love with the culinary culture in restaurants on the banks of the Seine River in Paris. Waters has been called the pioneer of “California cuisine” and mother of American food for the influence she’s had since opening Chez Panisse.
“We learned a lot in those days. About stopping the war in Vietnam, about civil rights. We had the good fortune to be enlightened, and we created our own world in the ‘people’s free republic of Berkeley.’ On the front lines everybody went down to the South. Right now there’s a lot of clarity [about the challenges ahead] in the same way there was then.”
One of the front lines during this age of renewed activism may be our schools. Waters calls America’s public education system our last truly democratic institution. “I want to find the really fertile places in this country where we can experiment with edible education.”
Her Edible Schoolyard Project was established in 1995 as a garden at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley and has expanded to include affiliate programs in New Orleans; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Greensboro, NC; and Brooklyn. According to its website, the Edible Schoolyard Project “involves students in all aspects of farming the garden and preparing, serving and eating food as a means of awakening their senses and encouraging awareness and appreciation of the transformative values of nourishment, community and stewardship of the land.” Local food advocates discuss the Edible Schoolyard Project as part of a “school food revolution.”
Recognizing the need for local and organically grown food in schools—to increase both the physical health and learning capacity of America’s youth—the farm-to-school movement is spreading across the nation, inspired in part by Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project. In fact, our state of Michigan is one of four with programs that incentivize schools to purchase locally grown food. Northern Michigan’s own “10 Cents a Meal” program, which was originally piloted by the Traverse City–based Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, provides 16 school districts in northwest and west Michigan with competitive matching grants to spend on locally grown fruits, vegetables and legumes. [This school year, the legislature expanded 10 Cents to cover 29 school districts.] Waters’ spirit is alive and well in public schools from Leland to Muskegon, from Boyne Falls to Frankfort. Crucially, the 10 Cents state incentive program has received bipartisan support in the Michigan legislature, as lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have recognized the benefit not just of healthy students but also of expanding the market for local farmers, encouraging them to stay on their land and continue growing a diverse array of crops.
“We have an obesity epidemic in this country that’s shocking,” says Waters. “Health organizations should be totally enthusiastic about this idea of feeding children nourishing food from kindergarten and through high school. Edible education should be taught together with physical education. They are both essential to our children’s healthiness and wellbeing.”
Waters sees fertile ground for edible education in the Grand Traverse region, which she visits every few years to see her sister, Ellen, whose (late) husband Bob Pisor founded Northern Michigan’s first artisan bread company, Stone House Bread, in Leland 22 years ago. (He has since sold the company.) In fact, when we met at Chez Panisse in March, I was proud to hear Waters refer to our local food movement as a “renaissance.” She alluded to food booster Mario Batali and the Honor-based organic jam and preserves company Food for Thought.
“My brother-in-law was making bread and using organic flour and doing it all the right way. My sister is in landscaping, so she knows all the farmers that sell organic fruits and vegetables in the area. I’ve visited those farms and experienced the great renaissance that I feel is happening up there.”
Waters will speak at the National Writers Series in Traverse City on September 24 about her forthcoming memoir Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, in which she recalls the circuitous road and turbulent times leading to the opening of Chez Panisse, arguably America’s most influential restaurant.
“I think people know a lot about the restaurant and what’s happened to me in my life after, but I think it’s really important to know about my origins and how I got to where I am,” she says. “I discovered many things in the writing of it that surprised me, because I’ve never looked back on my life so critically. I know I love nature now but I guess I always did.”
Growing up in New Jersey, Waters says she found comfort sitting up in a tree. Her mother taught her the names of all the flowers in the yard. Her parents became interested in gardening when citizens were encouraged to grow a “Victory Garden” during the Second World War. They kept it their whole lives in order to eat affordable and nutritious meals. But the radical movement of Berkeley in the ’60s, and a French obsession with eating fresh, local foods, that came later.
Waters says she dedicates Coming to My Senses to the new counterculture of this country—the agitators for locally grown, organic food to be not the exception but the rule in every kitchen, restaurant, school, nursing home and food pantry. When Alice Waters visits Traverse City in September, she could walk down Front Street, duck into almost any restaurant, scan its menu for locally sourced, organic ingredients, and measure her impact on contemporary American cuisine. That’s how far the Chez Panisse movement has reached. She could also visit countless school cafeterias in the Grand Traverse region and smile as children learn about, and devour, locally sourced fruits, vegetables and legumes grown right here in Northern Michigan.
This story was originally published in the Summer 2017 edition of Edible Grande Traverse.