On Thursday, chef, author and culinary leader Alice Waters had a medal hung round her neck by President Obama for her work as a food activist, joining the hallowed ranks of National Humanities Medal winners. TIME posed the culinary queen 20 questions, covering everything from $8 pieces of toast to McDonald’s egg-related announcements to why she thinks soda cans should come with warning labels.
What did you have for breakfast?
I always have the same thing, my Chinese pu-erh tea. Usually when I’m home I have a little whole wheat flat bread and a little hummus on it, but I’m traveling right now and I just had some fruit and yogurt this morning.
Do you watch the Food Network?
No, I don’t. I don’t watch television except TCM [Turner Classic Movies].
Do you have a favorite film?
Today, it feels like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Frank Capra is right in my mind.
What is the most overused food buzzword?
Healthful. Just all those words trying to get you pay attention to health when in fact everything that’s being sold to us is basically unhealthy.
Should all menus have calorie counts on them?
Obviously I don’t think that they should. I think that fast food restaurants need it for shock treatment. But I don’t believe in counting of calories.
Should people be allowed to buy sugary drinks of any size they want?
I am very much in favor of a soda tax. We all know the obesity epidemic is linked to sugary drinks. And I do think we need to get serious in the way we did abut smoking. Really serious about it. Warning labels on every bottle. And they should never be available in schools.
What do you think of McDonald’s announcement that the company will only use cage-free eggs in North America?
It’s another gimmick. Cage free does not necessarily mean no hormones, and I think we need to be very clear about definitions. What does grass fed mean, really? They can be two weeks on the grass and the rest of their lives in the factory farms, but we don’t ask those questions, and most people don’t know the answers, which is why I like to go out and meet my farmer and my rancher.
Has the term gluten-free become too trendy?
It’s not that there aren’t people who are truly allergic to wheat. But the idea that we have to eat this for this reason and that for that reason, when we’re not seeing the big picture of what is locally grown and what is seasonally ripe and really following the rhythm of nature—we’re somehow imagining that our problems can be solved by eating this or doing that, when I think it’s a big cultural picture that is causing us to be unhappy and struggle with food.
Why does America continue to have such a problem with obesity?
We have to understand that we’re living in a kind of fast food culture, that everything around us is trying to get us to buy something. When you grow up that way, not having any time with your family at the table, you’re not learning about portion size. And you’re just out there grazing. It’s very easy to be tempted into the addictions of salt, sugar. And if you’re not happy, it’s a very, very serious kind of temptation.
What do we do about those problems?
We aren’t looking at it holistically. Really what we need to do is support public education in a very big way. We need to give children the feeling that they’re cared for. And they need to have an edible education, that’s my deep conviction, is that we need to have a reconnection to nature and to the culture of the table and with that comes the kind of camaraderie and understanding the issues.
What’s the last thing that you ate out of a bag?
Probably potato chips, but organic ones. That has curbed my addiction to salty potato chips, is that I don’t buy them unless I know where they came from.
When you go grocery shopping, is there a section or type of food you start with?
I always go to an organic health food store or I go to a farmer’s market, so I don’t go to a grocery store. I’m somebody who loves salad, and I probably go there first, and herbs.
Would you spend $8 on a piece of toast with avocado smeared on it, assuming it was a very good piece?
Would I spend $8? On a loaf of bread or a piece of toast? Quite honestly, it depends on where I was eating that. If I was helping to support a baker that I loved, I would eat an $8 piece of toast.
What is the new kale?
I just hate to think of vegetables in terms of trends. I can think of it in terms of discovery, that you find something and you keep it for your whole life. And kale may be one of those things. I think we’re going to keep discovering wonderful fruits and vegetables, and I’m not sure what the next thing is going to be.
What’s the most important meal of the day?
That’s a hard question for me. I suppose breakfast has become that for me because it’s part of ritual I have of taking a walk and coming back and sitting down and eating by myself. I love gathering with my friends at dinner but the important moment for me is breakfast.
What do you think about the popular dinner-cooking subscription kits like Blue Apron?
Where you get food that’s almost ready to eat and then you finish it off? I have to say that my favorite part of the week is going to the farmer’s market on Saturday at the Ferry Plaza and choosing food for the week.
Some scientists have suggested that women are more sensitive, better smellers and tasters than men. What do you think?
It’s hard to say. It’s something I could see women being good at because they’re involved with cooking more and taking care of children, so they have become more sensitized. But we all are in need of education of our senses.
Did you have a favorite meal or snack as a child?
I liked grilled cheese sandwiches. I did, still do.
What was dinnertime like at your house?
I always had to be home and ate with my family. Every night we ate at 7 o’clock when my father arrived, all of us, four children and my parents had dinner together.
Did you have anything planned to say to President Obama?
Well, if I got in a conversation, I would certainly want to encourage him to speak up like Kennedy did back in the ’60s around physical education. I would like him to speak about feeding every child in school a free, sustainable school lunch. That is the place of equity in our country, most every child goes to school. And what if we fed every child in school? I think I whispered that to him once before, and he said, “Yes! I’m going to.” So I’ll just have to remind him again.
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