Alice Waters visits the Hudson Valley

Alice Waters (Gilles Mingasson | Courtesy of the Author)

Alice Waters (Gilles Mingasson | Courtesy of the Author)

For someone synonymous with Northern California, Alice Waters has been springing up in the Hudson Valley with frequency. The celebrated chef, author and activist, famous for fostering farm-to-table fine dining at her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, finds there to be much in common between the two regions – and a few enviable differences on the New York side.

“You’re much greener. You get water, we don’t; and that’s a very big difference in terms of the landscape. But in terms of farming and biodiversity, I think the same thing is going on in the Hudson Valley that’s been going on in Northern California for just about the same period of time,” Waters says. “You’ve always had a summer kind of diversity that’s amazing: blueberries and strawberries, and just think of the varietals of apples and pears in the fall…You really have more of a history of root cellars, and we need to learn how to do that, too, as the weather is changing. I think people have an illusion that we have everything all year long.”

On Sunday, September 28, Waters will make a special appearance at bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy in Rhinebeck to converse with the public and sign copies of her latest cookbook, The Art of Simple Food II. The intimate event will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. and is free and open to all.

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It’s the capstone to a busy Hudson Valley weekend. The day before, Saturday, September 27, Waters will attend a 4:30 p.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony at Empire Farm in Copake, as part of the FarmOn! Foundation’s fourth annual Friends of the Farmer Hudson Valley Food-Lovers’ Farm Festival. From there it’s on to the sold-out TEDxHudson: Crossroads conference, where she’ll be the guest of honor at a farm-to-table gala.

All three engagements reflect a passion for local, organic and sustainable produce and edible education. Waters founded the Edible Schoolyard Project and inspired First Lady Michelle Obama to plant the White House lawn’s first vegetable patch since Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II victory garden.

Not coincidentally, Waters recently joined the Roosevelt Institute at the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Society in Hyde Park. She’s a huge fan of the victory garden, instituted during World War II as a means of supplementing food shortages and encouraging civic pride. According to The Art of Simple Food II, “With Eleanor Roosevelt leading the charge with her garden on the White House lawn, more than 20 million victory gardens were planted during World War II, and they produced more than nine million tons of fresh vegetables,” Waters writes.

One of her most exciting new projects is a victory garden at the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park. “The idea that a garden would be planted at Roosevelt’s home was just thrilling to me, and I said that I’d like to help. I think it’s going to stir people’s emotions, imaginations and sense of democracy, and I hope it brings us to back to our senses and engages us in a project that was dear to Eleanor Roosevelt’s heart,” she says.

Waters’ parents’ victory garden was dear to hers. Born in 1944, she grew up playing and picking in the garden, which produced some of her favorite childhood flavors. “I always tell the story of when I was 4 or 6, I was dressed as the Queen of the Garden: I had strawberry bracelets and a crown of asparagus – the whole nine yards – and I won a prize. That’s where my roots are, in that victory garden. My passion for fresh fruits and vegetables certainly comes from eating strawberries hot in the sun. My parents canned rhubarb and applesauce; those are very pleasant early memories that I have,” Waters says.

And, while it’s hard to imagine Alice Waters meeting a fruit or vegetable she didn’t like, that wasn’t always the case. “Well, I didn’t like a lot of vegetables, because my mother wasn’t a great cook. She had these four children, and they didn’t have much money; and so she got sold, like everybody else, that frozen or canned vegetables were where it was at. So I don’t think I really ate string beans or asparagus or any of those things when they were cooked properly – not broccoli, not any of them. The closest was probably green beans, because they were frozen: a little overcooked, but edible,” she says.

It was a much different style of cooking and eating from what Waters encountered while studying abroad in France, where everyone took baskets to market daily to pick out the best, freshest produce available. Back in California, that principle would one day become the guiding force of Chez Panisse.

“The US is a country that’s been educated by a vast food culture,” she says. “We didn’t have deep enough roots in agriculture or in gastronomy, and so when [fast food corporations] came in, it was easy for them to teach us what is of value and what is not. We settled for fast, cheap and easy. We are now suffering the consequences of that, and they are manifold. That’s why I’m such a believer in farmers’ markets, home gardens and edible education: because they immediately bring you back to nature, back to a season and back to our senses – and we long to be there.”

Alice Waters book-signing, Sunday, September 28, 2-4 p.m., bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy, 6423 Montgomery Street, Suite 3, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-111, www.bluecashewkitchen.com.

Friends of the Farmer Hudson Valley Food-Lovers’ Farm Festival, Saturday, September 27, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., $15, victory garden ribbon-cutting with Alice Waters, 4:30 p.m., Empire Farm, 556 Empire Road, Copake; (518) 329-FARM, https://friendsofthefarmer.com.

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