Exclusive Interview: Alice Waters
by Anneli Rufus
Alice Waters thinks she knows why Americans are so fat.
"I have my theories," confides the conoisseuse whose Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse has been hailed as the birthplace of California Cuisine. "I think," Waters tells myprimetime.com, "that people just aren't happy."
We've got money, we've got cordless mice. So why the long face — or, in this case, the humongous ass? Waters believes that, in our yearning to fill an emptiness that looms deep within ourselves, we end up stuffing our gobs instead, which is easier. And since America has long since declared its independence from civilized eating, she says, we can't even get the gob-stuffing part right.
Capitalism is a key villain here, she notes, just as you might expect from a Berkeley iconoclast whose determination to cook and eat her own way has made her a legend: "Everything in this country is trying to get people to eat cheap, greasy food." And we're falling for it like bottom-heavy bowling pins. As for Americans being the pawns of genetic misfortune, not for a second does Waters believe that predisposed-to-adipose baloney.
Cellulite begins at home — and in our refusal to eat there. "We aren't sitting down at the table anymore," sighs the mesclun maven, who wrote an introduction for the new book Best Food Writing 2000. She cites a recent finding that 88 percent of kids in this country do not eat even one of their three-plus daily meals at the family table.
Her latest project is "the edible schoolyard," a program at a local middle school where kids maintain a bounteous year-round vegetable garden and then, in a wide range of classes, learn to cook, serve, eat and enjoy the results. Kids raised on Yoo-Hoo and Big Macs "have been sold a bill of goods all around town," just as their parents have. "And these habits can be changed. Under all the gorging on junk food, she insists, "there is a craving for other things" — for fresh, crisp green things, like arugula and broccoli rabe.
Gourmands worldwide would give their left arms to be one of those kids grilling garlic under the watchful eye of Waters, whose restaurant is a few blocks away. Into the project she pours 30 years' worth of her personal philosophy about the art of eating.
Good healthy food is essential, but it's only the beginning. "It's about pleasure. Setting the table, making it a ritual: putting bread in a basket or lighting candles or putting on some music — whatever brings people to the table." And a well-set table, she says, feels like "a special sanctuary. It gives me the chills every time."
Then the talking starts — and the eating. When the food is good, when you know where it came from, that's an instant conversation-starter. Table talk might just put us back on the road to inner happiness.
"It's more important than reading, writing and arithmetic," Waters says. "It's a civilizing curriculum. We're talking about survival."