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Alice Waters and Reductive Views of Food Cultures

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One of my summer projects is writing a big food literature review essay for a major journal. So I’m reading a lot and there will probably be a series of food posts over the next few months. There’s a big new interview with Alice Waters in the Times. Now, before we get into this, the last time there was a comment thread on high-end restaurants here, a month ago or so, the comment section devolved into “spending that kind of money on food is dumb and I can cook at home, etc.” I am exceedingly uninterested in the LGM commentariat expounding on their lifelong preferences to never leave the house in terms of how they think restaurant culture is bad. What I am interested in though is how Waters thinks about food and how out of touch it often is with how other people interpret and think about food. Anthony Bourdain compared her to Pol Pot and that was pretty unfair, but she’s not a very flexible thinker and in our food world, that’s not very helpful. A couple of excerpts:

I cannot compromise when it comes to wholesomeness. Our health begins in the ground. Period. The health of the soil is the most important thing right now for our health and for climate. I cannot accept any excuses, because I don’t believe they’re true. They’re myths promoted by the fast-food industry: “It’s too expensive to eat organic, regenerative food.” It is not. If you know how to cook and you don’t eat huge amounts of meat and cheese, it is not more expensive. It doesn’t take more time. We can do it. That is what I’m trying to help people understand.

This idea that it is not more expensive to eat organic food is just not borne out by reality. Yes, of course Americans eat way too much meat and cheese. No question. But even when you take that out of the mix, it’s not just about cost. It’s about time. It’s about accessibility. It’s also about taste. While I know Waters gets this on one level, she thinks the fat and salt turn-ons from fast food are a result of propaganda. They aren’t. That stuff sells in part because it tastes good. Moreover, she also ignores (more on this in a minute) the reality of work in American life. If you are working and you have a family to feed, you aren’t going to have the time to make meals from scratch every night. You probably aren’t going to have the money either. It’s true enough that you can cook relatively tasty meals for not a ton of money and not a ton of time. It’s still more time at the very least than fast food.

Well, fast food has separated work and pleasure. You work in an Amazon factory and then come home, and you have to eat quickly and it’s too much trouble to cook. Just order in. Buy something fast on your way home. All those fast-food pleasures. Box of cookies? Grab it. Work can be hard, but it should never be meaningless. Beauty and meaning are human values, and we have taken these away from the public. They’re being sold the cheapest pot and pan; the thing that you buy and it breaks down and you buy another one. Some people will never understand that I would rather pound my pesto by hand because I’m smelling it — I can’t wait till basil comes. It’s almost coming, and new garlic just arrived! I’m thinking about that pleasure when I make pesto. It takes a little longer, but I don’t want to do it in a blender. I don’t want to hear the noise. If I use a machine, I’m not experiencing making the pesto as I experience it when I make it by hand. We always make everybody make pesto by hand as part of their application at Chez Panisse.

Waters is a utopian and I guess that’s OK. But you can’t change the way people eat if you don’t recognize while work doesn’t have to be hard and meaningless, it is in fact hard and meaningless. She uses the Amazon factory example. OK. But people who work there aren’t being deluded by not getting tremendously excited about going home and making pesto out of the most precious ingredients. They are genuinely tired. They aren’t being sold that tiredness. They feel that tiredness. If we’ve taken away beauty and meaning from the public, then the questions are how you bring that back to the workplace, because that’s where this all starts. If I worked in an Amazon facility, I’d probably eat that box of cookies too. And I would not feel bad about it.

Is there anything better about the culture today than there was, say, 60 years ago as far as our relationship with food?

I want to say no, because we have lost the idea of the preciousness of food. We think it’s OK to waste. It is unconscionable to waste. Is there something you can think of?

This is ridiculous and just wrong. In 1961, the nation’s food culture was primarily boxed goods in response to the new technologies of the kitchen. This was a historically low moment for immigration as the nation’s borders had been largely closed since 1924, so traditional cuisines that were new to the U.S. were not entering.

There is a tremendously powerful force for nostalgia in thinking about American food history. The past is always when Americans ate more healthy, more vegetables, more home-cooked meals. But this really isn’t true. Actually reading about America’s food history becomes a deep dive into the awfulness of American food for most of the nation’s history. Greasy poorly cooked meats, a lack of fresh vegetables, and overly sweet desserts basically sums up the nation before 1900, with the additional joy of adulterated food due to the industrial revolution and the Gilded Age’s indifference to safety of any kind. Yes, we can look back at our grandparents and remember home-cooked meals; in my case, German home-cooked meals, which was a real treat when we were there. But the other side of this of course is that those are very time consuming meals that happened almost exclusively because of women’s unpaid labor, whether they slaved over a hot stove after working at the factory or if they were not part of the paid labor force. Those such as Michael Pollan and Waters who long for a nostalgic past of American food routinely handwave this away.

I’d also point out that another huge advantage between American food today and 60 years ago is the sheer variety of food that has entered the nation due to immigration. But Waters has her own thoughts on this too and they aren’t very good ones.

I guess that more people are more open to more kinds of food. Let’s say for the sake of argument that my family’s experience is somewhat representative: My grandparents were immigrants from southern Italy. My nonna had an amazing garden. She grew tomatoes; she had fig and pear trees. She had grapes, radicchio, eggplant, peppers, beans — and she grew them in Canadian weather. She understood in her bones how to grow food. But I will say that her interest in trying any food that she was not already deeply familiar with was nonexistent. And now my parents will gladly eat Thai food, Japanese food, Mexican food. Isn’t that a change for the better?

That is a change. But in a way, it’s not the real thing. It’s our fast-food idea of what Mexican food is. Certainly there is a vibrant farm-to-table movement in this country. The farmers’ markets that are dedicated to organic and regenerative are incredibly exciting to see. I have to say, the idea of small restaurants happening like the ones that I went to when I was in France8 in the ’60s is so appealing. They’re not running a restaurant to make a big pot of money. They do it as a way of life. They’ve taken all these human values — nourishment, community, beauty and diversity — and run with them. And I have great hope for what could happen in cities if farmers’ markets became the place to buy food, so that people didn’t have to go to the outskirts and buy from Costco.

This is bullshit. What’s “the real thing?” How many people running Mexican or Vietnamese or Korean joints in the U.S. are in it to “make a big pot of money?” Sure, they’d like that, but they have no illusions of it. Those restaurants are a ticket to slightly upward mobility. Is the problem that they aren’t the equivalent of the best street food in Bangkok or the charcoal grilled meat of Oaxaca? Those experiences aren’t really replicated here, but I’m not sure what Waters even wants. Are the people in my favorite Korean place in East Providence not engaging in nourishment, community, beauty, and diversity? This is just a dreamscape of food that Waters has, one that has lionized visions of rural France and Italy and assumes everything is worse than that. And even if Americanized Mexican food isn’t often very good, Taco Bell is far from the only experience of Mexican food that most people have in 2021. The entire idea of “street tacos” drives me up the damn wall–they are just tacos!–but that term is clearly coming out of people recognizing that there is something that is not Taco Bell and wanting to try that. So what’s the problem?

What about ideas of beauty relating to food that are different from your own? Maybe this is a cockamamie example, but couldn’t someone say that, from an ecological perspective, meat created in a lab is a beautiful concept? Are you open to that?

No. I’m not, because nature is sacred, and authenticity for me connects with beauty. I can’t entertain it if it’s not the real thing. I know there’s something intrinsic in food that’s genuine and ripe, seasonal. There’s something about the flush on the peach — you can sense it.

Huh. Well, maybe the Pol Pot comparison wasn’t so outrageous after all.

I’ve eaten at Chez Panisse. It was a good meal. It didn’t change my life. I enjoyed it. I appreciated it. Waters does have good points about the bigger picture. But she really has the wrong attitude to see those changes through, even if she does have the necessary enthusiasm. Meanwhile, if I go out to Five Guys today (I’m not, but let’s just say), I am not going to feel bad about eating industrialized food. I might feel bad about eating beef. But if I open a box of pasta with jarred sauce (not going to do this either today), I’m also not going to feel bad about it. Nor will I if I go to the local taco stand, even if the birria de res isn’t totally legit or whatever.

One big important point here is that Alice Waters does not have the lock and key to defining legitimate food cultures. People create food cultures all the time out of what is available. A lot of our food discourse revolves around authenticity politics and no one imbibes this more than Waters. But food is one of those things, like language, that is always changing. It wasn’t necessarily better in the past (and in the U.S., absolutely was not better in the past) and it might or might not be better in the future, whatever “better” means here. But there are many paths to a food life. Even if I might make fun of bad condiments.

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