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Still Waters

by Published on
photo by David Sifry
Alice Waters has been credited with popularizing values like food sustainability and seasonality.

Alice Waters is nervous.

This shouldn’t be. Waters is famous. Waters is loved. Her image hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., around the corner from Walt Whitman’s. The New York Times calls her “the chef who revolutionized American fine dining.” She was the first woman to be named “Best Chef in America” by the James Beard Foundation and the only American chef to have received the French Legion of Honor.

And yet, before an audience of about 1,000 on a February evening in Houston, Alice Waters looks downright shy.

Randall Morton, founder of the Progressive Forum, which, along with Urban Harvest, is hosting Waters, has just delivered a lavish but hardly overstated introduction. He pointed out the extent of Waters’ legacy: in the national proliferation of farmers markets; the wide availability of organic produce; the popularization of values like sustainability and seasonality; and school lunch reform. None of this is news to Waters, but she still looks a little stunned as she assumes the podium at the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater.

She spoke for about an hour, from notes, in a careful, thoughtful voice, stumbling occasionally. “I resist public speaking,” she confessed.

But she’d made this exception to talk about the “edible education” she hopes will become a regular part of all public schools. This sensory experience of every part of the food cycle would have students growing fresh produce on school grounds, harvesting and cooking it themselves and enjoying it in the cafeteria. Waters believes that connecting children with the origins and flavors of fresh food will do more to promote a lifetime of healthy eating than reading a chapter on nutrition in health class.

Her vision was inspired by a San Francisco prison garden program and realized at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley 16 years ago. Waters, through her Chez Panisse Foundation, has since helped found five other “Edible Schoolyards” around the nation.

Waters advocates a pedagogical version of the experience she had as a young woman in France in the late 1960s. “It was the first time my senses were completely awakened,” she recalled. “In France, I was suddenly surrounded by a way of life that was all about touch and taste and aromas and sounds. I was beside myself. Remember, this was a time in the United States when all the supermarkets were hermetically sealed and TV dinners and mechanized appliances were all around. You know, convenience, efficiency, sterilization.”

But in France, people shopped local markets for fresh, seasonal produce and meat, not because it was virtuous but because that’s simply how things were done. “The ritual of the table was central to family life,” Waters said. “The family I stayed with had their children come home [from school] for lunch. They had two hours to have lunch with their family. Imagine that!”

Those values—and flavors—would guide the rest of her life. From Chez Panisse’s opening in 1971, Waters tried to reproduce the tastes she experienced in France, which meant finding fresh, locally grown, seasonal produce. This, along with an emphasis on simplicity in an age of heavy, fussy food, and the serving of a single fixed-price meal per night, set Chez Panisse apart. That’s not to say it was a hit; the restaurant took eight years, and the intervention of a proper bookkeeper, to turn a profit. “The simplicity was of course born out of the fact that we didn’t have any money,” Waters said. “But there’s something about the priorities that we may have gotten right. Food was front and center.”

As Chez Panisse became more successful, Waters began using it as a platform for activism. In 1987, Waters helped organize one of the first benefits for AIDS victims, a pair of events called Aid and Comfort. When her daughter, Fanny, went to Yale, Waters founded the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which maintains an organic farm on campus and uses the food in dining halls. She also started the School Lunch Initiative in 2005, dedicated to improving the nutrition of school lunches. And she lobbied presidents Clinton through Obama to install an organic garden on the White House grounds. Michelle Obama finally broke ground on one in 2009 as part of her Let’s Move! campaign against childhood obesity.

Now 67, Waters has only become more ambitious. “I want the next president, no matter who it is, to declare a state of emergency around childhood obesity and children’s health,” she said. “I believe our president could make a moral case for feeding every child at school a free, wholesome, and nutritious breakfast and lunch.”

Waters acknowledges that the changes she seeks seem expensive, especially in an age of shrinking budgets and teacher layoffs. But she says it’s a matter of priorities. “After the banks got bailed out,” she quipped, “I figured, I don’t need that much. Just half.” The audience erupted in applause. Waters smiled, relaxed.

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.