“We must un­der­stand the con­cept of flavour, of sus­te­nance, and the sen­sual hu­man­ity of the ta­ble.”

Elissa Alt­man on Alice Wa­ters

The Guardian - Cook - - Comment - Elissa Alt­man is the au­thor of the mem­oirs Treyf and Poor Man’s Feast, and writes the James Beard Award-win­ning blog of the same name; @elis­sa_alt­man

Atime of un­apolo­getic ex­cess when shoul­der pads are mas­sive, hair a three-footh­igh fire hazard, and meals are served on gleam­ing black charger plates the size of hub­caps. I’m stand­ing at the back of the orig­i­nal Dean & DeLuca in Man­hat­tan’s SoHo, where I’m work­ing as the cook­book depart­ment clerk. Early one morn­ing, be­fore the rush – the gal­lerist Mary Boone buy­ing a $10 tomato, JeanMichel Basquiat try­ing to not fall into the chevre dis­play – the front door blows open and a pe­tite lady drag­ging a heavy, cast-iron Tus­can fire­place grill huffs and puffs her way down the aisle to where my boss and I are wait­ing.

“I’m just back from Tus­cany,” she says in a breath­less pant, “and I’ve fallen in love with it! Can you find some­one to make th­ese over here?’

“Of course, Alice,” my boss says to this wo­man – who schlepped this be­he­moth thou­sands of miles be­cause she loves the pure, dra­matic car­nal­ity and el­e­men­tal flavour of fire-roasted foods, and wants oth­ers to en­joy it as much as she does – even if their only live flame source is a sub­ur­ban fire­place. Alice wants oth­ers to ex­pe­ri­ence what she did on a lifechang­ing trip to France in the early 1960s: that sin­gle mo­ment when the gears click into place, when some­thing shifts, and the sen­sory act of cook­ing and eat­ing and break­ing bread with oth­ers will never be the same again.

“Thank you,” she says, leav­ing the grill in at my boss’s feet. She floats down the other aisle, out the door, and is gone in a blur of muted silk crepe.

Thirty years later, Alice Wa­ters re­mains in con­stant mo­tion; for al­most half a cen­tury she has ar­guably done the heavy lift­ing for a na­tion that, when the doors of her res­tau­rant Chez Panisse opened in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia in Au­gust 1971, was drink­ing jugs of Moun­tain Bur­gundy and eat­ing aerosol cheese. That Wa­ters’ new mem­oir, Com­ing to My Senses, is ded­i­cated not to her fam­ily but to 1960s ac­tivist and leader of the Berke­ley Free Speech Move­ment, Mario Savio, runs par­al­lel to her com­mit­ment to a clear moral is­sue: not only should good food – hon­estly grown, picked at the height of its sea­son, pre­pared sim­ply, served beau­ti­fully, eaten slowly and con­vivially – be avail­able to ev­ery­one, but we must recog­nise and sup­port those who pro­duce and pur­vey it: farm­ers, fish­er­man, ranch­ers, lo­cal grow­ers, farm­ers’ mar­kets, and Com­mu­nity Sup­ported Agri­cul­ture. We must un­der­stand the con­cept of flavour, and sus­te­nance, and the sen­sual hu­man­ity of the ta­ble.

In Amer­ica, which is built on sup­ply and de­mand, speed, en­ti­tle­ment, and in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, vir­tu­ally noth­ing has been more rev­o­lu­tion­ary, chal­leng­ing, or com­pli­cated, than say­ing: “No; there is an­other way.”

As Savio im­plored the ri­ot­ing stu­dents of Berke­ley in 1964, Alice has “put her body upon the gears and upon the wheels” of an odi­ous ma­chine. And if she has not en­tirely stopped it, she has cer­tainly al­tered its course. In ev­ery city in Amer­ica, farm­ers’ mar­kets abound; or­gan­ics are widely avail­able; small veg­etable gar­dens thrive from in­ner cities to sub­ur­ban front lawns to the White House; the Ed­i­ble School­yard Project, founded by Alice and the Chez Panisse Foun­da­tion in 1995 now ex­ists in 33 coun­tries.

The chefs who have passed through the Chez Panisse kitchen in­clude Deborah Madi­son, the late Judy Rodgers, David Ta­nis, Paul Ber­tolli, Joyce Gold­stein, Jeremiah Tower, Jonathan Wax­man, Mark Miller,

Cal Peter­nell, Suzanne Goin, Steve Sullivan, and Russell Moore – and two Cook con­trib­u­tors, Claire Ptak and Samin Nos­rat. All have gone on to write sem­i­nal cook­books, open land­mark restau­rants and bak­eries, and put their own mark on an ethos that has for­ever changed the way we think about food and the ta­ble.

I never bought one of Alice’s Tus­can grills; I had no fire­place. What I did have was a small kitchen where I of­ten cooked for my friends, hope­lessly scour­ing the city for Meyer lemons be­cause Alice said I should. Af­ter she left Dean & DeLuca that day, my boss gave me a stack of books: El­iz­a­beth David’s A Book of Mediter­ranean Food, Richard Ol­ney’s The French Menu Cook­book, Jane Grig­son’s Good Things. “If you love Alice,” he said, “you’ll want to read th­ese.”

While hav­ing din­ner at Chez Panisse this past sum­mer – 30 years af­ter my first en­counter with her – I or­dered a peach for dessert, served with noth­ing but a knife. Picked at the per­fect mo­ment, its flavour was ex­plo­sive and al­most lewdly mouth-filling, and its juices drib­bled down my chin.

I un­der­stood.

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