Alice Waters is known as “the mother of the modern food movement” for her insistence on using locally and organically grown foods in her restaurant kitchen at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, which she founded in 1971. Indeed, doing so spawned the commercial success of many small-volume vegetable growers in her region, and it inspired countless other professional chefs to follow suit. Asked if she ever imagined the scope of her future work, she says, “I never imagined it in a million years. I was really just opening a restaurant for my friends. I never imagined it would be more than a neighborhood restaurant. The country was in the throes of a fast-food culture. What we were doing at Chez Panisse was just so different. People who had gone to Europe understood it was a little French restaurant, very different than what was happening at that time. I thought it was simply the way things had to be done.”
Waters also initiated efforts to have local school lunches made with wholesome ingredients, and out of these came the Edible Schoolyard Program, wherein middle school students are involved in growing, harvesting and preparing foods from an onsite garden. At the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, the garden and kitchen are used as laboratories for teaching all the academic subjects: the sciences; English class, when they’re writing the recipes or thinking about the food; and even having a conversation with the Spanish class and cooking the food of Spain. “We weave academics into the garden and the kitchen. I think the program needs to be in every school on the planet, so that young people gain the basic knowledge we all need to take care of the land and each other. It’s the most important thing,” she says.
Waters has authored numerous comprehensive natural food cookbooks, the latest of which is My Pantry: Homemade Ingredients that Make Simple Meals Special, offering a look at the basic food items that she considers fundamental to a well-stocked kitchen. In the book she talks about preparing flavored salts, grinding dried chili peppers and whole spices, making tahini and almond milk from scratch, pickling and confitting and compoting fruits and vegetables, making vinegars and cheese and generally maintaining a stock of favorite beans, grains, preserved fish and meats, along with the curiosity to experiment with new tastes and whole foods.
When asked how busy people can take the time to establish such a pantry and cook their own meals, Waters says, “Once you have the basic techniques learned, it takes no time, really. And if you have real food on hand – which means you need to go to the market and also have something in your pantry – with those you can make a meal quickly for many people. If I have olive oil and vinegar, some salad, a piece of fish – I can really make something. If I don’t have those things in my pantry, I’m really lost. Can’t think of what to cook.”
Waters stresses simplicity, economy and ease in the kitchen, calling her own preferences gleaned from exposure to other ethnicities “grace notes.” She comments on the feasibility of reducing waste and carbon expense in preparing foods from scratch. She compares the act of making yoghurt in reusable glass jars, for example, to driving to a store to buy it in a plastic container that was made elsewhere and was delivered by truck from somewhere else. Her admonitions don’t hit you over the head with guilt; rather, they suggest the pleasure of being involved with doing it by hand in your own kitchen.
The iconic winner of multiple awards and accolades (we’re talking honors from best-chef and halls-of-fame appointments by various culinary and academic entities to last year’s National Humanities Medal for her work as a champion of a holistic approach to eating and health, awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities), Waters continues to promote the cause of conscientiously produced, carefully prepared foods. She has said that when you eat fast food, you not only consume what is unhealthy for you, but you also digest the values that come with the food: fast, cheap, easy. “Something that’s really important now is just sitting at the table. I can’t say enough about the way we eat. What we eat is terribly important, but the way we eat is: taking care of each other. We need to have that conversation at the table, by bringing our children, our families and friends, to sit down without our cell phones and have a meal together, no matter how simple.”
Fans of Waters will be able to meet the author in person at bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy in Rhinebeck this Sunday, where she will sign books and talk food. Later that evening, Waters will guest host a special dinner with the Farm On! Foundation to benefit Edible Schoolyard, an event to be held at 5 p.m. on Empire Farm in Copake, with a menu executed by chef Jonathan Wright of the Rainbow Room in New York City. For more information about this “farm-fresh fundraiser” supporting garden-based learning for youth, call (518) 329-3276 or visit https://farmonfoundation.org/event-benefit-dinner-with-host-alice-waters-october-18-2015.
Alice Waters: My Pantry book-signing, Sunday, October 18, 1:30-3:30 p.m., free, bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy, 6423 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-1117, www.bluecashewkitchen.com.