Go Natural

4 minute read

At 3, Alice Waters was sent off to a party wearing a radish bracelet, strawberry necklace and lettuce-leaf skirt assembled from her parents’ Victory garden. It was the beginning of a lifetime of involvement with fresh foods. Chez Panisse, the restaurant she opened in Berkeley, Calif., in 1971, ranks among the best in the country. As a chef and food activist, she “may be the most influential figure in the past 30 years of the American kitchen,” says Gourmet magazine. Waters, 61, talked with TIME’s BARBARA ISENBERG about why consuming and appreciating natural foods is so important.

What sparked your passion for the table and its pleasures?

I had an awakening when I went to France at 19. People were living in a way that seemed to me so rich and layered in terms of experience. I knew it had something to do with eating, because French people spend a lot of time at the table–at the café in the afternoon and the dinner table in the evening. Food seemed woven into their everyday experience. I got seduced by that.

Food is considerably less central to American lives, isn’t it?

We have a very disconnected way of thinking about food. In other countries I have visited, people think of food as something precious and meaningful in their lives. But we have been closed in by a very narrow experience of eating– wanting everything the same all the time, whatever country we’re in.

Is it also a matter of seeing food as fuel and fast foods as convenience?

We Americans have never really connected food to agriculture and nature. Food has always remained in the category of maintenance. Do this–not with any particular pleasure–and as quickly and cheaply as possible. We have to get food out of that place of maintenance, where we overindulge or deny ourselves. We need to bring ourselves into a new relationship with food that connects to the seasons and nature and to our culture and traditions.

How might we do that?

Instead of buying herbs in bunches at the store, I buy pots of herbs. I keep them on a back step or in the kitchen, and they last. They are everything to my cooking. You can change the way tomatoes are cut and which herbs go on them, and it tastes like a new dish each time. Also, when you go to the market, you can see what’s there and then decide what to cook. You may want a soup and that’s fine, but you may not know what kind of soup until you see what is seasonal, ripe or beautiful.

Are you encouraged by the growth in farmers’ markets and organic-food stores?

Yes. Today you can find a farmers’ market a couple of times a week in every midsize city in the country. Things are sold when they’re ripe, generally, and people are allowed to taste and judge for themselves. You learn which is the Red Haven peach and which the Faye Alberta, and you can become very sophisticated about peaches if you pay attention. But even if you don’t, you’re likely to experience great-tasting food because it is ripe, fresh and in season. The organic movement is said to be growing 300% a year in the U.S., which leads me to believe that people are really hungry for not only the food but also the values that come along with it.

How would you describe the larger implications of the “slow food” movement?

Everything is moving so quickly that we’re not able to savor the everyday meaning and beauty of living on this planet. There’s such indoctrination around fast, cheap and easy, but we know deeply that the things that are satisfying take time and concentration. We’re trying to teach children that there are very important lessons learned around the dinner table: how to curb our greed and practice generosity through the sharing of food; how to communicate with and pay attention to one another at the table. We’re learning what it is to be civilized and patient.

Do you have any food recommendations for people over 50?

It’s important that we don’t think there are special things you eat as a child or when you’re older. Obviously, you eat less, but it separates people to have their food specially defined for their age. My whole focus is on getting people of all ages into a natural rhythm where eating is not disconnected from the rest of their lives. We have to find balance.

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