California fish & shellfish salad with fennel & herbs in saffron vinaigrette
Hand-cut pasta with fava beans, rosemary, garlic & pecorino
Grilled & braised Niman Ranch pork shoulder and loin with juniper sauce, asparagus pudding & garden lettuces
Candied tangerine ice cream with Meyer lemon & mandarin sherbets
The dinner menu of the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley only hints at the care and attention founder Alice Waters brings to the table when it comes to food. She is the creator of The Edible Schoolyard, an exemplary project designed to educate children about the sources and creation of their food, and she is also a major figure in the innovative “slow food” movement which is revolutionizing the way we farm, distribute, eat and even think about food. As part of our focus on the senses, Inquiring Mind brought attention to the tongue, and editors Wes Nisker and Barbara Gates talked with Alice Waters about taste in all of the many senses of the word.
Alice Waters: I was trained as a Montessori teacher in a tradition based on the idea that the senses are the pathways into the mind, and that we have to educate those senses so that we can get the most accurate information about the world. I feel that in our society we are cut off from the realm of the senses, from really seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing and touching, and consequently, we don’t always think deeply.
Inquiring Mind: Do you think that our dissatisfaction as a society has something to do with our uneducated senses?
AW: Absolutely. Our sensual experience doesn’t really feed us because we don’t know how to taste. We want the cake pre-made, and then we want just to eat the icing off the top. You can’t really appreciate a cake that way. It’s not rich enough an experience to be satisfying. It’s not so much a matter of the palate; it’s about fully understanding what we eat, how the ingredients were produced, and how they were prepared. It’s important to reflect on the source and the context in which this food arises.
IM: You’ve started a project called The Edible Schoolyard in order to teach children about their food and about their senses.
AW: I launched The Edible Schoolyard program as a way for kids to experience the entire cycle of eating, from the garden to the kitchen to the table, and then back to the garden again. If you give them a sense of that cycle, it changes their entire understanding of life and nature. The Edible Schoolyard is also an attempt to educate children’s senses by putting them in a garden and a kitchen. They learn partly through osmosis; the smell and texture of everything from the soil to the kitchen pots and pans seem to seep into their awareness.
IM: Your philosophy of education extends to the way you cook food for your famous restaurant, Chez Panisse. What is so unique about your cooking that has all the critics and customers in awe?
AW: Almost all of the food we serve is grown by people I know personally. I know the farm it comes from and how it was grown. The food is also as fresh as possible—the lettuce just picked and the beets just out of the ground. In fact, all our vegetables are grown by people who are within an hour or two of the restaurant, and we only serve what’s in season. We’re now talking with local farmers about raising animals organically for us. We had been buying organic pigs from Iowa farmers who needed our support, but now they are eliminating organic feed. This is a good moment for us to find something closer to home.
IM: Your philosophy of eating has political ramifications that reverberate around the globe. How do our choices of what we eat affect the rest of humanity?
AW: If we eat what is produced locally, we eliminate the transportation costs and the related and enormously detrimental effects on the environment. If we don’t eat locally produced food, then we buy from the global market, and that has a tremendous impact on people around the world. Many indigenous peoples have lost their self-sufficiency because their land has been taken over by agribusiness to produce cash crops for our consumption. I find it so absurd that hunger is increasing around the world, and here in America we have an obesity epidemic.
IM: How do you suggest that people think about their food as they walk into a store or their kitchen, or as they sit down to eat?
AW: People can think about the consequences of their decisions. Are you supporting the local organic movement, which is bringing people together and keeping the money in your community, or are you going to give it to the “fast food nation”? The point I always try to make is that the correct decision is the “delicious” decision. Buy something that’s ripe and in season at the farmers’ market, and you will end up buying the most flavorful and delicious food. And if you don’t have a farmers’ market, ask people in your community why not. In the [San Francisco] Bay Area we have a farmers’ market every single day of the week. And that’s only happened in the last ten years. We need to have them in every city in this country. You just have to act. If you want to eat organic food, tell your local supermarket that every Wednesday you’ll bring ten of your friends around to buy it, and they’ll go out and find it for you. I’m encouraged that the success of farmers’ markets around the country has put pressure on the supermarkets, and many of them are now offering organic produce.
I think people need to ask some other questions at their local grocery as well: Where did this come from? Why aren’t you buying the local produce? What were the conditions under which this produce was grown? If they don’t know the answers, maybe they will be motivated to find out—especially if you don’t buy the products in question!
I would also encourage people to pay closer attention to seasonal foods. We eat differently in the winter than we do in the summer. At the restaurant, it wasn’t until we decided to use only ingredients in season that we discovered what was really available. We have this bounty of greens, things that I’d never heard of before. We found all of these colored carrots—yellow, orange, rose-colored and white carrots—and little turnips of every shape and stripe, as well as varieties of beans, such as the shell beans we use throughout the winter. Add the grains and the lentils and you’ve got a beautiful palette of tastes and colors. When you don’t pay attention, you miss out on this diversity.
There’s a restaurant in Connecticut that wanted to present a menu of local foods that were in season, and at first everybody thought they wouldn’t be able to eat anything in the winter. But they had potatoes and all sorts of root vegetables, squashes, cabbages, nuts, dried fruits, syrups, cream, butter, eggs, cheese. If you stop eating from around the world and just pay closer attention, you’ll discover the abundance of your own local harvest in any season.
IM: How can people cook food at home that is good on the tongue as well as good for the planet?
AW: I don’t think many of us know how to cook in a way that is sensitive to our ingredients. If we learn to cook this way, we can make tasty things with local produce, ingredients that are less expensive and more ecologically wholesome. Vegetables are always affordable, and fantastic dishes can be made with them. I’m afraid that, as a society, we just don’t have a clue. At our restaurant we’ve been learning from the Italians and the French, who have a long tradition of eating this way, but we have so much to learn.
Once you see the produce at the market, you can start to think about the shape of your meal. You see how ripe the melons are and decide whether you want to make a granita with them or slice and serve them with prosciutto. If the tops of the turnips are big and full, you might serve them with a piece of chicken, and if they aren’t so full, you might simmer them a long time as part of a soup. You let the food show you how it wants to be served.
Finally, when we sit down to eat I want people to bring to the table an awareness that we are all eating here together in a particular place and at a particular time of the year. We’re sitting down at our table in Berkeley on the 25th of November, and we’re eating persimmons from the tree next door and chestnuts from trees across the valley. It’s also important to pause before we eat, appreciate the moment, and then really taste the food: Isn’t it great to be here and now, eating this food?
From the Chez Panisse Restaurant Sustainability Statement
We have always seen the meal as a center of the human experience. At the table we are nourished and gladdened, put in touch with the source of life, and reconnected to traditions and creativity.
We seek farmers who know their seeds and soil, ranchers who care about the food their livestock eats, winemakers who know what their grapes have known, and fish merchants who are concerned about the health of the seas. To them we add kitchen and wait staff who care about the material of their work, knowing they will enjoy and take pride in the technical expertise they add to it. We reaffirm our commitment to all this, knowing that it is central to what is both the deepest and the most joyous of human activities: generosity, companionship, nourishment, growth.