The legacy of Alice Waters
There is no ethical food consumption under capitalism
Last issue, we talked about Alice Waters’ cookbook The Art of Simple Food. This week, we’re going to look at the mark she’s left on American food culture. Through her groundbreaking Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, she helped to shift American fine dining away from exclusively elevating European ingredients and techniques and toward carefully executed constructions of American dishes using ingredients grown here. Her approach to food—ingredient-focused and sustainability-minded; positioning eating well as an opportunity to support the environment and the farming community—is emblematic of the current mainstream in elite food media and dining and a fundamental influence on how Americans with means learn to think about food today.
To understand Waters’ attitude toward food, it helps to understand Chez Panisse. Opened in the early ‘70s and inspired by small neighborhood restaurants in France, Waters imagined Chez Panisse as a space with beautifully prepared but affordable food where her counterculture friends could hang out. Over the years, she began to drill down into a focus on the best possible ingredients she could get from local farmers. In her memoir, Coming to My Senses, she describes how her thinking about ingredients changed:
I never had a doubt in my mind that if we made really good food, people would want to come and eat there...I didn’t know then that the really good taste that I was after came from ingredients supplied by the organic farmers who were doing the right thing, the farmers who were taking care of the land and working with the old fashioned, flavorful heritage varietals of fruits and vegetables, picking them at the moment of ripeness...I believe now that 90 percent of taste comes from an understanding of what seed should be planted in what place, how to care for the plant, when to pick it, and how quickly to eat it.
Today, Chez Panisse is known for its simple but expert preparations, and a meal there is a special-occasion-only price point for most. The chef team is fanatical about presenting ingredients in their prime—this incredible account details how carefully fruit is sorted by ripeness before being served there. They have also heavily promoted the practice of collaborating with local farms to ask them to grow high quality and heirloom produce at scale. This veneration of ingredients is still pretty central to American fine dining today, and it’s trickled down into the mainstream. Dan Barber, James Beard award-winning chef of New York restaurant Blue Hill who interned at Chez Panisse, exemplified this by commissioning an especially flavorful breed of squash from his restaurant’s partner farm that is now available at supermarkets.
In The Art of Simple Food, Waters lays out the principles that guide her vision of cooking. The first three are:
Eat locally and sustainably
Shop at farmer’s markets
She claims that eating seasonally “rewards you with the most flavorful food,” implores the reader to learn where their food comes from and how it’s produced, and encourages them to think of themself “as a partner with the farmers, learning from them and working with them.”
The problem is, these ideals aren’t realistically attainable to most people—not everyone has access to a farmer’s market or can afford the markup of sustainably produced foods. (Anthony Bourdain once suggested Waters doesn’t understand that poor people can’t afford organic milk.) And it’s a hard sell to convince people that they can only eat roots, tubers, and apples all winter when there’s a bounty of green vegetables and bright berries being shipped to their grocery store from warmer climates.
But let’s get down to the core ethos here. All of Alice Waters’ ideas around food boil down to the final principle on her list:
Remember food is precious. Good food can only come from good ingredients. Its proper price includes the cost of preserving the environment and paying fairly for the labor of the people who produce it. Food should never be taken for granted.
She’s right that when we buy food at the grocery store, we’re usually not paying the price it costs for food to be produced ethically. But you’re not going to achieve environmental preservation by only eating tomatoes when they’re in season. Chatting with the person behind the counter at the farmer’s market isn’t going to improve working conditions for farm laborers or any other low wage workers in the food supply chain. And even the prices for organic foods are determined based on the cost of their conventional counterparts, not the true cost of producing them.
Yet the philosophy that we can “vote with our forks,” improving the food system by buying organic, local, and/or fair trade, is everywhere. In fact, I was able to find it in several places in this month’s issue of Bon Appetit. To take one example, a feature on a new book about cooking and baking with ancient grains says in a sidebar, “Good for everyone: When you buy small-batch grains, you’re not only supporting the local economy, you’re also advocating for agricultural biodiversity and more sustainable farming methods.” Buying something isn’t advocacy! Advocacy requires a time investment in pushing for policy change. Buying small-batch grains doesn’t automatically leave a voicemail with your senator asking them to support the Green New Deal. It’s bizarre and kind of sad that we’ve gotten to the point that this conflation of purchasing power and people power is taken for granted.
By glamorizing the performance of sustainability through cooking, leading chefs and food media outlets obscure the fact that equity is a collective project. When we get too excited about how much better organic tastes, we’re not making a real commitment to changing the status quo—we’re just trying to buy our way out of a much bigger problem.
I’m here to explore the joy of cooking and eating with you, and I’ll cop to believing that some foods really do taste better when you buy them from the farmer’s market in season. But I don’t want you to fall into the trap of conflating gustatory pleasure with saving the world. Eat what you can afford, prepare it so that you enjoy it. If you want to put your money where your mouth is, your dollars will do more work for the collective good as a donation to an organization working to change our food system than at the farmer’s market.
Further reading (in order of commitment/difficulty)
“The Twilight of the Ethical Consumer” by Elizabeth L. Cline
The newsletter From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy tackles these topics a lot. I recommend subscribing. If you’re already a paying subscriber and have access to the archives, take a look at “On Culture” and “On Consumption.”
The Secret Life of Groceries is a super in-depth look at the ethical pitfalls that are all over the grocery supply chain written in a fun tone that makes a topic that might seem dry quite fascinating.
I’m still working my way through A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism, but the second chapter goes into detail about how dependent our food system is on labor and environmental exploitation to keep prices low for consumers and still turn a profit for food companies.
Next issue: I’ll review Dessert Person, Claire Saffitz’s new cookbook with incredibly detailed recipes that make it easier to bake with confidence.
Note: Links to books in my letters are affiliate links, and if you buy I will earn a small commission.