Interview: Alice Waters "I Call it a Delicious Revolution": A famous restaurateur promotes reading, writing, and arugula. by Reed McManus
An author of eight cookbooks and owner of an eatery named "Best Restaurant in America" by Gourmet magazine might be satisfied to sit back and sip a Pellegrino. But Alice Waters, one of the best-known champions of locally grown, fresh food, has bigger plans: She hopes to change the role food plays in our culture. The Berkeley, California, restaurateur promotes farmers' markets and "slow food," a movement that's not about lackadaisical service but encouraging people to center their lives around shared meals.
Waters has also taken her evangelism into the schools, first with the Edible Schoolyard, a decade-long effort at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Middle School to educate kids about what they eat-and to keep them happily fed. Most recently, she persuaded officials to include food as a curriculum throughout the school system, to promote "better health, improved nutrition education, and a broader understanding of the importance of sustainable food systems to healthy human communities." Sierra sat down with Waters in her renowned Chez Panisse restaurant to discuss the politics and promise of mealtime.
Sierra: Why should food be part of a school's curriculum?
Waters: Food has been disconnected from culture and agriculture. The result is that everything is meant to be fast, cheap, and easy: Resources are infinite, labor should be cheap, food should be cheap. This whole set of values is destroying our agriculture and destroying our culture. The only way we're going to reconnect people is through the public school system. It is our last truly democratic institution. If we have a curriculum that teaches slow-food values, that begins in kindergarten and goes through high school, we will be turning out environmentalists into the world.
The Edible Schoolyard gives us some idea about how a food curriculum can be woven into every subject. You could be preparing tacos, making tortillas, and speaking Spanish as part of a Spanish class. The kids become the waiters in the dining room and they are speaking Spanish and the menu is in Spanish and maybe the homework is finding out where all these foods come from, what their history is, what the background to this is. Maybe it's about what farms all of these foods came from. Maybe it's studying the botany of particular beans or melons. Maybe it's the art of illustrating them. You have to figure out how to become a steward of the land so that you understand how to satisfy yourself in the experience of eating.
Sierra: Most environmentalists aren't used to working on that scale. They think big, in terms of government policy.
Waters: Eating is an environmental act, depending on where you buy your food. Digest this, and all of a sudden you see nature in a different way. I am dependent upon it, for my pleasure at the table and for my good health. Once you eat with understanding, you get it.
That's what's happening at the Edible Schoolyard. We aren't instructing kids about environmentalism. They just absorb it. They all know what compost is, they know what's ripe and not ripe, and how to take care of the little tree cutting and how to nurture it so that it can be transplanted. They know about planting seeds carefully, they know about seeds from around the world. It's by doing that they get it.
Sierra: How did you talk the school district into this?
Waters: We have been seeding this project for a long time. Way back at the beginning of the Edible Schoolyard, people came by and saw how excited the kids were about being in the garden, and cooking in the kitchen, and sitting at the table. They could imagine this happening at lunch in other schools. So when we proposed a district-wide curriculum, approval was unanimous.
Sierra: Can these lessons be applied in all communities, in all families, regardless of income?
Waters: We are cooking wholesome, delicious, affordable food. One of the great outcomes of this project is, we hope, to define-if you will-a peasant cooking connected to the land. Right now, our cheap food is fast food. That's what people are eating as a basic diet. We can learn how to cook really well and really affordably.
Sierra: What would you tell parents in Des Moines or Madison who want to start an edible schoolyard or a food-curriculum program?
Waters: Go into the schools and see what's happening. Take a look at what they're serving in the cafeteria. They need to ask questions of the principal: What are the kids eating? Where are you getting that food? What kind of recycling is going on here?
Sierra: A lot of parents are worried about obesity now.
Waters: So officials are looking for comprehensive solutions. People should know that just upgrading food in the cafeteria is not going to do it. Kids eat junk food before they get there. If it's not an academic subject, they don't get involved. We know from the Edible Schoolyard experience that if they grow it and they cook it, they eat it. They will eat it if they have the pride of making it.
Sierra: Rather than wait for 12-year-olds to go through the Edible Schoolyard program, how can people jump-start things today?
Waters: Go to the farmers' market and buy food there. You'll get something that's delicious. It's discouraging that this seems like such an elitist thing. It's not. It's just that we have to pay the real cost of food. People have to understand that cheap food has been subsidized. We have to realize that it's important to pay farmers up front, because they are taking care of the land. Plus you are getting something that you can't live without. Once you have a great tomato or a perfectly ripe peach, you are not going to go back.
Sierra: How do you get people to slow down and focus on their meals?
Waters: People have to come to the idea that it's a beautiful thing. You miss life completely if you don't do that. You just have to decide, OK, Sunday lunch and Thursday night we're going to eat as a family or as a group of friends.
Sierra: You stress the importance of eating locally grown food. In California, that sounds easy enough. But what if you live in the Northeast?
Waters: You just eat differently. Just like we do here at the restaurant. We don't have a single fresh tomato from October until July. We can tomatoes and use them like that in the winter. We use root vegetables. We have carrots and turnips and a whole array of dried beans. We use different kinds of fish. We do a winter minestrone, and a summer one, and a fall and a spring one. It's what makes the food exciting for me. We are just following the seasons. I couldn't wait until the peaches came back. Now I've eaten so many peaches I never want to see peaches again.
Sierra: What's the best way to convince people to eat local, organic, and sustainable food?
Waters: You just feed them. You set a table, and make it a beautiful experience that they don't forget. This is an environmental movement that's about pleasure. It's about bringing people to these ideas through the pleasure of the table. Through beauty. It's not telling people what not to do. It's bringing something to people that can change their lives, and that they can do easily. Pleasure is in our systems for a purpose. Why do we have to be denying ourselves? We don't. This isn't hard. This is delicious. That's why I call it a delicious revolution.