Alice Waters and Her Detractors

Sometimes you hear it said that it’s hard to be on top. You’re really good at what you do, maybe you’re a trailblazer, and you find yourself feeling like someone’s target practice. Some people can’t understand why you deserve the praise you’re accorded, they think anyone could have done what you did, they don’t like your style.

I can’t help but wonder if that sort of jealousy is what’s going through the minds of the apparently right-minded people who have been taking pot shots at Alice Waters lately. A few weeks ago, after his co-panelist, Momofuku’s David Chang, decried every restaurant in San Francisco for not manipulating food enough, television’s famous Anthony Bourdain said that he agreed with Waters’ message, but didn’t believe that she was the person to deliver it. He said he thinks she wants to legislate eating habits. He said she annoys the living shit out of him.
If he’s found time in what must be his own very busy schedule as a food celebrity to read Caitlin Flanagan’s recent piece in the Atlantic, called ‘Cultivating Failure(link),’ he probably appreciated it. Flanagan thinks that in working to introduce food cultivation and preparation to schoolchildren through her Edible Schoolyard initiative, Waters has used her celebrity to compromise their educations, and by extension, she writes, ‘diminish our shared cultural life.’ The Edible Schoolyard program suggests that schools take the earth-shattering step of planting gardens, so one wonders what sort of shared cultural life Flanagan thinks is on the chopping block. Is she talking about common American behavior like buying 100 count boxes of frozen hamburger patties at Wal-Mart and Costco? Perhaps that’s the cultural life that needs protection against the likes of Alice Waters.
In any case it isn’t easy to take Ms. Flanagan seriously, largely because her four thousand word piece about Waters and the havoc she’s wreaking in schools is so full of this strange animosity. In the midst of her assault, for instance, she mentions that people who eat at Chez Panisse like to say ‘right-on’ and ‘yes we can,’ and that they love ACORN, and that waiters at the restaurant have a penchant for interrupting dinner conversations. When children throw tantrums and incorporate all sorts of irrational grievances, we forgive them for their moodiness, but Flanagan isn’t a child.
She’s a big girl writer who has a seven page axe to grind, and the elephant in the room in each and every paragraph she writes is the question: why? What is it exactly that is so threatening about the idea of a child who learns to cook vegetables? The premise that underlies every facet of her argument is that time spent learning about growing and preparing food and time spent learning about Shakespeare or mathematics are mutually exclusive. Educators, she seems to say at every turn, must choose one or the other,.
It seems to me to be an outrageous suggestion, mostly because my childhood was so dearly lacking the very education that would have been afforded by the programs Flanagan derides. At my high school in suburban Boston, there was plenty of grammar and Victor Hugo and trigonometry, and there was also a ‘breakfast’ program run by the school cafeteria for students who arrived to school early. I didn’t need to be one of those students—I lived across the street from the school, but on many mornings in my freshman and sophomore years at Randolph High School I roused myself from bed in time to get to school a little early so that I could wait in a short line in an adjunct room to the school cafeteria, where a couple of ‘lunch ladies’ (as they were known) prepared breakfast.
There were two offerings on the menu on those mornings in 1987 or 1988, and I remember them like it was yesterday. For thirty cents, the growing boys and girls of Randolph could purchase either a warm, mass-produced, cellophane-wrapped cinnamon donut, or two pieces of Wonder bread which had been run through a toaster and slathered with a brush soaking with melted butter. My friends and I regularly made sure we had a dollar or two extra for that period before school, with which we’d purchase a balanced meal of two donuts and two ‘orders’ of toast (four slices) dripping in butter, or sometimes just four orders of toast, or some other monstrous permutation of empty calories. At fifteen years old, these foods were prominent in my culinary landscape, along with the sausage biscuits I was making at the local McDonald’s. I don’t believe anyone would deign to suggest that the gastronomic experience of my American childhood was unique. The shape of my body certainly wasn’t.
Now, it bears mention, the heartiest of collard greens wouldn’t have stood a chance in an outdoor garden in the winter months in Massachusetts while I was scarfing down donuts and buttered toast. The edible schoolyard would have required some indoor adaptation in order for it to have benefited me and my cold weather schoolmates. But what would have been the problem with that? If we had learned to jar and can and preserve, or to cook collard greens, or to rehydrate dried beans—would time spent learning the basics of gastronomy have compromised the rest of our educations?
The answer to those questions is that to the contrary, some education in how to prepare and consume food would have augmented our efforts in other disciplines. For starters, it’s considerably more difficult to be a conscientious and studious adolescent while you’re trying to fit in socially with a peer group that’s teasing you because you’re fat. But additionally, and this is something that advocates of physical education have been saying for years, a healthy young body is quite a lot more conducive to mental exertion than one hopped up on sugar or carbohydrates.
I don’t know how differently I would have felt if I had eaten poached eggs with spinach and roasted tomatoes in those days instead of heaping bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, but it’s an experiment I’d surely sign on to if I had the chance. And it bears mention, to Alice Waters’ detractors who shout that she’s a socio-economic elitist–my egg breakfast would have cost about the same as my two bowls of General Mills cereal. (I don’t find the slightest hint of legitimacy in the argument about Waters’ elitism put forth by Chef Bourdain and others when they watch her poach an egg on national television in her expensive wood oven in Berkeley. Isn’t it obvious, when looking at the scope of her work, when considering her focus on organics, on vegetables, on education, that she’s much more interested in good healthy eating than she is in promoting expensive food or showing off her fancy kitchen?)
The facts and statistics that Caitlin Flanagan would surely unearth if she was as interested in them as she is in carving up Alice Waters, is that Americans have as woeful an understanding of food as they ever have. The meteoric rise of interest in cooking shows on television, celebrity chefs all over the country, and in watching Anthony Bourdain eat sparrows in Laos don’t seem to have done much to stem the tide of obesity and heart disease in this country. The CDC reported last month that the number of obese Americans seems to have leveled off in the last five years—we’ve reached a plateau at an even third, 34% of the overall population, which happens to be twice as high as the percentage was in 1980. The percentage of obese children has tripled since then.
But one wonders, really, why statistics are even necessary in this conversation. My sister, who works as a school administrator in Portland, Oregon (perhaps the most progressive food city in the country), told me recently that even in Portland, school lunches have in some sense actually gotten worse than they were when she and I were eating them twenty years ago. Cafeterias these days are churning out variations of the same fried processed chicken and mass-produced frozen pizza that we used to eat before fifth period history class. And as she pointed out, who would disagree with the idea that there are all kinds of gravely important issues that tie in to kids’ diets? Certainly obesity and mood variation are fundamentally connected, but proclivities to ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, perhaps skin problems are all enmeshed in the question of what kids eat.
We can only hope that Alice Waters and her colleagues and all the rest of us find new ways to improve the situation, which has for so long in this country been taken for granted but which so intensely requires our attention. So strange it is that the question of food and eating has become a political lightning rod. On the one hand there are figures like Alice Waters, who pleads with her country to learn how to eat–an admonition so clearly justified that it seems to defy contention. On the other hand we observe a sort of backlash to her work, from the likes of Chang and Bourdain and Flanagan, and it’s tempting to think that their complaints really are the product of some kind of jealousy. She is a great figure, and she does carry a message, and such people tend to inspire dissent.
But there is something deeper here, and it has to do with the shallowest of considerations. In the midst of a paragraph in ‘Cultivating Failure’ about visits to two supermarkets in the poor city of Compton outside Los Angeles, while attempting to establish her own gastronomical credibility, Flanagan writes ‘The produce section—packed with large families, most of them Hispanic—was like a dreamscape of strange and wonderful offerings: tomatillos, giant mangoes, cactus leaves, bunches of beets with their leaves on, chayote squash, red yams, yucca root. An entire string section of chiles: serrano, Anaheim, green, red, yellow. All of it was dirt cheap, as were the bulk beans and rice. Small children stood beside shopping carts with the complacent, slightly dazed look of kids whose mothers are taking care of business.’
She continues in the next paragraph to declare that this Hispanic market is a triumph of capitalism, because see? Real vegetables (beets with the leaves on!) are already available everywhere, even in Compton! Never mind that Compton is closer to a huge supply of vegetable-growing farms than almost every other city in the country, or that the point she makes doesn’t in any way substantiate her larger argument about the needlessness of food education. Obviously, a great many people who live in Compton are passing on the beets with leaves and opting instead for McDonald’s, Krispy Kreme and bags of fried pork skin.
This passage, in which her argument is the weakest, while she departs the world of statistics and writes instead about the inside of Ralph’s supermarkets in Southern California, reveals what I think is the defining aspect of her perspective, and also of Chang’s and Bourdain’s. The fact is that nourishing one’s self by eating well is so primary a human act, such an indisputable right of any living creature on this planet, that it makes sense that we should feel a good deal of collective shame and embarrassment that our national diet is in such a shambles. It’s natural for some people to lash out when they feel those things, whether they know they’re feeling them or not. It would be better of course to direct energy towards addressing the problem, which maybe could be eased by working with young people before they develop the bad habits to which so many people presently succumb. Maybe the seeds could be planted in the schoolyard.