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Back in 1971 when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, she wasn’t so much interested in becoming a restaurateur, as she was provoked to open a restaurant that would cater to her values. She wanted to feed the Berkeley revolutionaries and build a revolutionary meeting place that would, as she says, “combine her love of food with her passion for politics.” Thatta girl!
Earlier this year, at a screening for Food Fight: Revolution Never Tasted So Good, I got the chance to view Chris Taylor’s new documentary on the subject (and Erin and I got our picture taken in Manhattan Magazine…I think my face looks fat, but see for yourself). In his film, Taylor offers a fascinating look at how American agricultural policy and food culture developed in the 20th century, and how the California food movement rebelled against big agribusiness to launch the modern day, local, organic, green movement. Sitting squarely in the center of all this revolutionary hubbub sat the still venerable Chez Panisse.
In the film, Waters’ describes her dream of a foodie haven with these words, “I wanted it to be a political place…where diverse groups of people gathered in conversation with good food.” She argues that eating and gathering around good food is itself a progressive act that can lead to further progress. She seems to be suggesting that social activism can be as simple as making a good meal.
So with Thanksgiving around the corner and millions of families and friends joining together across the nation to share good meals and give great thanks, I thought it timely to take a moment to reflect upon what exactly constitutes a “good meal.” For me, good food means real food, which in turn means unprocessed, whole foods that occur organically in nature. Real foods are those ancient foods that our great-grandmothers cooked with before scientists ever even identified the vitamins and nutrients that get all the credit for healthy eating nowadays. They are the foods that grow naturally on our planet and are un-fooled-around-with until a skilled chef or home cook gets her hands on them. Real foods have well documented health benefits and can be transformed through mouth-watering recipes using unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meat, seeds, eggs, dairy, bread, even chocolate. These are the ingredients for making good food great. If as she claims, “85% of cooking is finding the right ingredients,” then Alice Waters would most certainly agree that a good meal starts with real-deal ingredients.
In our current “green” moment, when a return to local and organic foods is literally gaining ground (with more farms, farmers and farmers’ markets) and gaining popularity both onscreen and in kitchens (with more home cooks, line cooks, and celebrity chefs), perhaps the most inspiring message I took away from Food Fight was that when Alice Waters got started, she wasn’t looking for local, sustainable organics…she was looking for taste. Of course, the best tasting food is real food, and she quickly learned that real foods are grown in properly cultivated soil, on responsibly tilled land, home to free-range, grass-fed livestock…which in this country, is most commonly found in Northern California, of course! Her search for great taste lead her to seek out local, sustainable, organic farms, not the other way around. It wasn’t an intellectual pursuit, but a palette-satisfying journey that Alice Waters traversed. She saw herself as a civil rights activist who wanted to put politics on the table, not the mother of the green movement who aimed to politicize food. She later became that mother hen, but she started with the simple quest for a good meal. Her celebration of real food became a signature of the cultural revolution that began in Berkeley and has since, if slowly, swept across American shores. Waters’ believed, as I do, that good food was and remains in itself a progressive act that can lead to further progress.
Whenever I feel confused by a recipe or stumped when writing a menu, I always do the same thing; I pull out my copy of Greenmarket: The Comprehensive Guide to New York City’s Farmers Markets, and I study the produce chart that explains what’s in season each month of the year in NYC. Really and truly, I study it, and I get ideas, and I start aching for the foods that are ripe right now, for the foods that are seasonal, local, organic and sustainable. Not because it’s hip or chic or politically correct to eat them, but because they taste the best.
I could quote Alice Waters as the day is long, but her words that stick with me most are ones I’ve posted here before, “Good food should be a right and not a privilege.” Taylor was wise to advise that good food is worth fighting for. I’m privileged to live 10 blocks from a remarkable greenmarket, in a city that is more food-forward than any other on this planet (well, truth be told, San Fran might give us a run for our money), in a country that offers me the freedom and the opportunity to live a food life and make my livelihood doing it. For that, one week before turkey time, I am tremendously thankful.