Alice Waters, chef, author, and “Slow-Food” Activist, has been an idol of mine for many years. Listening to her speak in person, and watching her respond to Jose Andres on Friday night at the gorgeous National Portrait Gallery, shifted my view of her from admiration, to reverence.
Alice Waters has an aura; she’s graceful, elegant, and lovely, and she bantered in a fun way with D.C. rock-star chef, Jose Andres. They ate clementines from a large silver bowl that she serves at her restaurant, Chez Panisse, (I couldn’t help thinking Meryl Streep must play her in the movie version)
She often ignored Andres’s direct questions, which he jokingly accused her of, as she shared her sweeping, game-changing dreams for our country, and its’ food. It made me want to sign up and help, and she clearly has had a lifetime of people doing that.
Ms. Waters charmingly talked about her dream for America—“I want to feed every school child for free, and I want to get all the food for them locally. I want the cafeteria to be part of the school curriculum.”
Her dream is to do for food, what John F. Kennedy did for physical fitness in our nations school system. To integrate the “art of eating”, to make it mandatory, to make it important. She wants the children in our country to sit together and talk at lunch, to enjoy fresh local foods, and to understand where their food comes from.
(As the mother of a young child, I sadly thought of my son’s rushed lunch period. Eating without speaking on a classroom desk, and telling me he can’t bring homemade soup because he doesn’t have enough time to eat it.)
Alice Waters grew up in New Jersey, with a family “victory garden”, and fondly recalls living close to the seasons as a young girl in the 40’s. Her childhood was not unusual, but unlike most Americans, she didn’t move on to fast foods and frozen dinners when they became popular. Instead she moved to France, and immersed herself in the French style of eating; locally grown, seasonal and slow.
Returning to the States, and to Berkeley, she opened Chez Panisse, her restaurant that has become a national treasure, because “she wanted a place to eat with her friends”. Chez Panisse was the beginning, but her heart clearly belongs to The Edible Schoolyard, and everything it stands for.
The Edible Schoolyard began from an idle comment she made to a reporter about the food in our country’s schools. After hearing her comment on the news, she was invited to visit a local school principal. The Principal had acres attached to his school, and intrigued by Alice Waters and her dream, he offered it to her. Together they built a beautiful garden to feed his schoolchildren.
The Edible Schoolyard is the result, and it’s provided a prototype and dream for the rest of the country. Middle School age children devote time to tending the garden, and take pride in their food, and as Waters said, like in France, “they see food as part of a rich and meaningful life”.
She talked about most school cafeterias in the U.S., and how the smell makes you not want to enter..
“Would it kill them to add garlic to the broccoli?” she commented, and I had to agree.
Alice Water’s beautiful photographic portrait, by Dave Woody, depicts her in the Edible Schoolyard. It is installed in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, DC.