When Chef Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, four decades ago, she began cooking up more than delicious dishes. She helped pioneer a new food movement, one that brings us back to our roots: eating fresh ingredients, grown locally and in season. As an author and passionate advocate for a food economy that is good for the planet and its people, Alice inspires many of us to rethink what we eat, how we grow it, and when and where we buy it. But to nourish better relationships between Americans, their food, and the environment, she doesn’t just serve good meals and information to adults. Her foundation’s project, the Edible School Yard, is filling the stomachs of some of our nation’s hungry children and feeding their minds with an education in nutrition.
I caught up with Alice recently.
In the foreword to True Food, you warn that "our nation has veered out of true, or out of alignment" and that "we must cultivate the connection between plate and planet." If coming into true with our food is a process, what's the first step?
I think of my first step, or how I was first influenced. It happened in a farmers’ market, and it happened while eating. I think there is a great possibility of going into a farmers’ market in the summer or early fall and experiencing a taste sensation. It can be like a light bulb going off.
President Clinton was here not too long ago. He’s had real issues with food and what he eats and has had health problems as a result. I think of what I wanted to do when he visited: I wanted to feed him a peach. I wanted him to experience a kind of pleasure that is connected with food. Food that is wholesome and seasonal can really, really make an impression. It’s the sensual engagement, this interactive experience that can be self-revelatory.
Remember our lunch at Savoy? You ordered a big, juicy hamburger. Although the burger was made with pasture-fed beef, your choice surprised me. What’s your view on eating meat?
I eat meat, but only meat that is pastured is acceptable. We probably need to eat a whole lot less meat in general, but choosing to eat only pasture-fed encourages you to eat differently, to think, “If I can’t get real meat, I don’t want it.” And since pasture-fed beef is more expensive, you’re inclined to eat less.
What is it about red meat that makes so many of us love it so much? Is it the fat?
Yes, the fat. Everything tastes better with butter. Meat that has fat in it is tender in a certain way, flavorful in a certain way. It’s hard to deny the flavor quotient there.
Does grass-fed beef contain the same amount of fat as grain-fed beef? Does it taste as good?
Grass-fed cattle are leaner. But it’s not true that they are less flavorful. You do want to learn how to cook them though, because grass-fed is less tender -- less fat, less tender. Take tenderloins -- I buy them every so often, and they cook wonderfully. We salt them a little bit. We put herbs on them. We’ll grill them or pan fry them. They’re tender and I think, incredibly flavorful. Once you discover the flavor of a cut like a hanger steak, or short ribs, which are naturally more fatty, you can just cook up something divine.
And then you discover other animals that are very flavorful like pigs. We serve very little beef or chicken at the restaurant. We do a lot of pork at the restaurant. And we do lamb [try Alice’s recipe] and a lot of game birds and fish.
Editors’ Note: Raising pigs on factory farms comes with environmental and health problems as well. Learn how to sort through the various claims on meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products with NRDC's Label Lookup (also available as an iPhone app).
Realistically, what do you think it will take to get Americans to eat less red meat or to cut down on portion sizes, in general?
We’ve got to. I think the ecological impact is pretty powerful. When you see those animals packed into the feedlot, and you learn about the waste, you begin to see things a bit differently. And then you come to understand why it is more expensive to pasture feed these animals, and why it is so important, and then you accept the smaller portion.
The typical American family rushes to get dinner on the table, often making heat-and-eat foods or ordering take out. What would you suggest as a good first step for them to try to slow their meals down a little bit?
I think baking bread is one of those things that is very engaging and really brings people into that process of making food. It’s so aromatic. It’s so universally understood. Whenever I am thinking about how to go into a community that doesn’t have a farmer’s market, I think of setting up a wood oven. Because people know that smell, they’re invited in. We want to open the senses.
Even if you don’t succeed in bread, you have succeeded in an aroma, and a hands-on experience. Your hands are actually in it. And it’s cheap. You don’t have to do anything. Mind you, you should start with a bread that is easier rather than harder. You can make a soda bread in an hour. [You can also try this no-knead bread recipe.]
Changing people’s eating habits does not have to be about denial, does it?
I don’t think it ever works to tell people what they can’t eat. They can do it for so long, and then they fall off. You have to bring them into a new relationship with food. We can’t have this conversation in the “Department of Health and Fueling Up.” I believe we have to bring the conversation about food in with an appreciation of the beauty of nature and of agriculture. We have to reconnect with the culture of food. That is how every other country on the planet thinks about food. We are the only ones that have separated this out. It’s not thought of as an everyday pleasure and not thought to be something precious, and that’s the education that we need to have. We need to have this “slow food” education. We need to fall back in love with the beauty of it all.
Unlike the rest of the world, Americans rarely celebrate food, maybe once a year, on Thanksgiving. This may come from our Puritanical roots, I don’t know. Interestingly, I am talking to the people at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia. He loved food and agriculture and was a farmer and quite knowledgeable about wines. They are redoing Chez Panisse at Monticello. I can’t think of any better way for them to do that than to celebrate the farmer, the farming, and all the things that come from their garden. It will be a celebration of real American food.
Speaking of Thomas Jefferson, writer and illustrator Maira Kalman discusses a "democracy of healthy eating” in her New York Times blog. What does she mean by that?
It’s the idea that we all should have food that is good for us. It is like a bottom line. We should be able to have that in our lives, and it should be affordable, delicious, and wholesome. I think it should be written into the constitution; it’s the pursuit of happiness.
In her blog, Maira muses about schools as being the place for the democracy of food to take hold. Why not feed all schoolchildren for free? If you give them breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack, you’ve provided them with the majority of their calories and good stuff for the entire day. School is the place where we can end childhood hunger, where we can teach them about empty calories and the real value of wholesome, good food. It’s the place where everybody can learn together. It’s where we need to go. All the ways that we are trying to bring gardens to and set up groceries in poor areas, they are all of a piece. They’re important but they don’t touch everybody. The schools … they reach all the children, and they are where we must start.
And you’ve done just that for the Berkeley Unified School District. You transformed its school lunch program, and with the help of Ann Cooper (the Lunch Lady). Without processed foods, the schools provide 8,000 meals per day and remaining within the district's food service budget. This is an incredible accomplishment.
We’ve made an impression, but it is very difficult to make anything really tasty and ripe when you have such a limited budget. It takes a wizard to do that. Mind you, if we buy food that is local and organic, we are giving money to those farmers who need that money. So whether or not we succeeded on the “taste end,” we have succeeded on the “support end” for the farmers.
What we need is to have a curriculum that begins in kindergarten and is completely central to the pedagogy of the school. And we need the food to be free. Because unless healthy food is given for free to every student every day, only the kids who are already educated about it will go in and buy something. The other kids, the ones who perhaps need it the most, will continue to carry their junk food around in their backpack. That’s the sad truth. Even some of the kids who do go in and buy healthy food have a coke in their backpack. So until we eliminate the discrimination that happens around that, we’ll never succeed.
We need to offer healthy to every child. Then, we need to tie it to the curriculum, so that when they are eating, they are doing their homework on nutrition, and they are learning the language of the food that is being prepared.
What would tell critics who would say this may be possible in Berkeley, California, but making it work in other parts of the country -- where growing seasons are shorter or where schools are economically strapped -- would be too difficult.
We’re bringing the concept to New York City, New Orleans, and to Boys and Girls Clubs. It’s just in a few schools in other parts of the country and a few clubs right now, but it’s going to spread. The vision is complete for all of these places: They want to put in a garden and kitchen classroom for each school. They want to serve every child for free.
Image: Doug Hamilton