Alice Waters is a modern-day icon, the mother of the farm-to-table movement and of farmers markets across the nation, the originator of California cuisine -- for better or worse -- and of the notion that eating and cooking local, organic, seasonal foods shouldn't be a socio-political issue but one of basic common sense.
So when she enters a room, looking for all the world like the benevolent leader of a benign cult in a simple, shin-length blue dress and work boots that lace tightly around her tiny ankles, people take notice despite her slight stature and unsure voice. Waters has become the Mother Theresa of food in a society that is increasingly concerned with what we're putting into our bodies, our temples.
"Eating local, organic food in season, eating with family and friends: These are ideas that are as old as civilization," Waters assured the audience at the Wortham Center last night, as if preaching an ancient religion to a new world. She spoke of her time in Paris and the cities of the Old World, in which she -- as a young college student -- experienced a "way of life that was all about touch and taste and sound."
Waters never sought out organic food or seasonal produce because of any ethical or moral commitment. Instead, she told the sold-out crowd: "We begin at a place of taste, and then we get to the politics and the food policy." Lead with your heart; the body will follow.
On stage, Waters radiated a lightness and a tenderness that was mimicked in the softness of her unadorned dress. She answered questions in a bashful and gracious way that suggests she's still, at her core, a woman who is blithely stunned by how much of an impact her personal philosophies have had on the nation.
After the show, at a book signing, the lightness and bashfulness was replaced with a hardened face. She rarely looked up, made short and clipped conversation with her fans. But to make the sort of impact that Alice Waters has, it's almost expected that she would be composed of both: softness and steel, grace and resolve.
It's resolve that makes her determined to this day -- long after her restaurant, Chez Panisse, has been designated by the grand food collective as the beloved earth mother restaurant of America and long after her multitudes of awards -- to finish what she started as a young teacher at a Montessori school in Berkeley: the "edible education" of our nation's youth, who are increasingly ill-fed and in poor health.
"My dream is to get the next president -- no matter who it is -- to declare a state of emergency," Waters said last night to raucous applause. "A state of emergency around childhood obesity and children's health."
Waters recalled working in a school years ago, teaching the children how to make hummus and pita bread, when an elementary school boy asked her: "Why can't we eat this all the time?"
"Why can't you?" was her own frustrated, rhetorical response to herself. Why can't children eat good, healthy food all the time?
It's this idea that pushes Waters these days, more so than just organic farming or supporting local food producers, because it's all intertwined: "I picture a future in which schools could support a local farm," she said. And the farm, in turn, would support that school by supplying it with fresh, healthy food on a regular basis.
On a smaller scale, Waters has been pushing for gardens in schools across the nation with her Edible Schoolyards project and for victory gardens at home. Gardens are "delicious, personal, affordable and teach one to be self-reliant," Waters said, although the unspoken question is really whether or not these are still values that most Americans care about anymore.
Either way, these gardens can be tools, she says, which will teach math and science and social studies and basic agriculture at the same time as they feed the children who tend them. Waters wants children to by nourished body and mind by food, so much so that she also envisions a future in which the cafeteria becomes the soul of a school: "If we anchor a student's day around food," she said, "all of their other subjects will come to life."
She was quick to acknowledge that feeding our children fresh, local, organic food is, indeed, more expensive. But that we also need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that food should always be fast, cheap and easy: As with anything else in life, you get out of something exactly what you put into it.
"You pay up front or you pay in the back," Waters put it. "We've lost our health as a result of not paying up front." Statistics support this theory: American households have historically budgeted less and less money for food over the decades, from 41 percent in the 1910s down to only 19 percent in the 1980s.
That figure is still dropping, as more Americans buy cheaper food and pay less for it due to massive government subsidies of crops like corn. The solution? "Find satisfaction in really good things less often," said Waters. For a spoiled society whose primary impulse has become instant gratification, that can be a bitter pill to swallow.
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But Waters is far from the first to call attention to this problem, the problem of poisoning our nation's youth with cheap, junky food at home and in schools. As Waters noted at the end of her lecture last night, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was preaching the same message two centuries ago:
"The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves."