Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Alice Waters COMING TO MY SENSES: the making of a counter culture cook is a feast--politics, pleasures and food

 Around 1973 or 74, my boyfriend and I wandered into a funky restaurant in Berkeley. I remember a hand-lettered sign, Chez Panisse, and a casual open space with arty touches. It had one choice on the menu but it was French.  I don't remember what we ate, only that it was tasty. There was a woman, who asked us how we liked the food, who said it came from her garden. It was a wait for food but we came back for the freshness, the food and her attitude, as though it was all a lark.

Fast forward to 2017, where you have to look no further than Whole Foods to realize how Alice Waters changed the way we buy, cook and eat food. In her new autobiography, COMING TO MY SENSES: The Making of a Counterculture cook (Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random, Sept), Waters explains how her early life and the 1960s counterculture were essential ingredients to her evolution. At 27, Waters, a home cook without formal chef training, opened a restaurant based on a love of French cooking and an instinctual delight in nature, food and life.

How  Waters "came to her senses" is a bit ironic, since she says just following her senses led her to her life's path. Born in 1944, growing up in the 1950s in Chatham, New Jersey, she was an unlikely candidate for the counterculture.  Hers was a traditional family that was happy. Her mother worked in the home raising four daughters, while her father, an HR psychologist, worked for companies managing workers. Though money was always tight, Waters  recalls her mother's concern for health. They always had  gardens and meals were often planned around what they grew. Creativity was part of it. Once she won a contest with a bonnet her mother devised from vegetables. Waters also talks about peach ice cream  made from scratch and never frozen.

Following her senses in high school meant Waters puzzling out sexual attraction, drinking being wild but also, as was expected doing well enough to go to college. When her father took a job in Los Angeles her senior year, her focus changed. In a  more  academic school, she aspired to learn from smart people and become one. That desire led her seek out the company of interesting people and feed them, all her life. But in the 60's, when she eventually landed in U.C. Berkeley, she was shocked by the exciting and demanding intellectual environment.

The Free Speech Movement was one of a range of political groups that sprang up, spurred by the many young men, who did not want to be drafted to die in a war considered unjust. Disillusioned with the aims and profits of the "military industrial complex," students faced the lottery, where a low number meant certainty of being sent to Vietnam on graduation or before, if grades fell, or you could no longer afford to continue. The movements were fanned by the nightly sight of body bags piled up with no end in sight. American culture's verities no longer held.

In a U.S., where assassination had killed a President JFK, RFK, his attorney General, King, a major Civil Rights figure, and possession of political material meant jail, paranoia was rampant among young people. The counterculture developed as a response, seeking new values and groups, such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War, were part of a mass movement for workable change. African Americans fought for Civil Rights. Women sought equality in education and jobs. With the advent of the pill, they had the option  to pursue an independent life unlike their mother. Economic and personal autonomy for Waters meant she could follow her life, as she wanted. But first on the agenda for the counterculture was to end the war.

For Waters, who joined the Free Speech Movement with the support of her mainstream family, it also became about feeding people. She started cooking at home for  friends and soon for large groups. Alice Waters grew up on fresh food, as well as 50s standards and liked whatever tasted good., white bread, hot dogs, chile con carne. Life in Berkeley represented freedom from the conformity of growing up in the 1950s. In an era before "branding" she simply sought a better way to eat. What exactly did she bring to the table?

She answers this question in a serial fashion, over the years, finely attuned to her physical surroundings, people and and a sense of what was essential for pleasure and happiness for herself and those who joined her journey.  She traveled to Europe with friends and learned about life and cuisines. In France she saw ancient texts about the care and uses of plants and came to appreciate both the respect for nature and slow cooking.

As the counterculture waned for Waters and she couldn't afford to feed all that dropped by, she thought about opening a restaurant. She wrote a column about food and recipes for a paper and was celebrated in Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant," which eventually became a reality. In COMING TO MY SENSES she describes her rite of passage at the 4 Seasons, where she and Prudhomme were selected as 2 of 4 young chefs being honored and how ill prepared she was for large commercial volume. And his act of friendship that saved the day. She talks of cooking for filmakers, musicians, writers, many famous, as part of her admiration for smart people with interesting ideas. In this book she shares a life of passions for friends, lovers, garlic, and beauty--wherever it happens. The world made it's pilgrimage to Chez Panisse. She speculates, why..

"A lot of why Chez Panisse succeeded as because it didn't feel like just another restaurant. We were a family--or at leas an eccentric tight-knit tribe. None of us had ever been trained as cooks or gone to cooking school. As James Beard said later, "It's like you're eating in somebody;s home." I wanted it to feel that way."

The aesthetics of food preparation, cooking and eating in our time is as much an aspiration as a lifestyle. When Michelle Obama gardened at the White House, as an example to school children of how to eat well, she reflected Alice's family gardes. This book is life as a feast--politics, pleasures, food-- and a woman who enjoyed it all