Naturally Good

December 18, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Like many kids growing up in the 1950’s, I went off to school with squishy things in my lunch pail. That was the predominant texture–peanut butter or tuna on squishy bread, a squishy twinkie or snowball for dessert. A similar texture characterized dinner–casseroles and overcooked vegetables. It wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t much of anything. It’s hard to remember now that obdurate blandness, now that every city corner sports a trendy coffee bar of one stripe or another, while homespun bakeries yield of loaves of rich, chewy breads.

Even the supermarkets offer shelves of olive oil and cool the cases of smelly, imported cheeses. Food magazines and newsletters abound. There is even a 24-hour food channel on cable, and chefs, from the venerable Julia Child to the portly Paul Prudhomme, are the celebrities de jour. In short, there’s been an eating revolution in this country over the past 25 years, a revolution, some would argue, that began right here at this restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, which opened its doors a quarter of a century ago this year. In its tie-dyed anti-war days, while Berkeley was awash in counterculturites of all stripes, anti-warriors, and free lovers, the first foodies were doing their thing on this now revered ground.

MAN: How did you do ’em?

ALICE WATERS: I just cut ’em in quarters, and I just really gently sauteed them in olive oil–

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Their Pied Piper was a shy, soft-spoken woman named Alice Waters, who believed passionately that food ought to taste like something and ought to be fresh–no frozen food, no food out of cans and ziplock bags. She wanted food from the earth, organic tomatoes that tasted like tomatoes, chickens that roamed the range.

ALICE WATERS: It’s also very easy to make simple food when you have good ingredients. So when I have lovely tomatoes, all you do is slice them. They don’t need salt. Fruit doesn’t need sugar. You don’t have to make something out of it. It’s just what it is.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Ad hoc growers began to do her bidding, raising goats and growing lettuces all over the countryside of Northern California. Her unpretentious, wood-paneled restaurant became a mecca for the equally impassioned. At one point a hundred people worked at Chez Panisse doing the labor-intensive kitchen chores for which many were seriously over-qualified. The restaurant had become, as things can do in California, a community of worshipers. It took on a sensual, spiritual edge, this obsession with food and eating. Sometimes, it seems we can’t do it any other way out here. And, indeed, Alice Waters, herself, famous from coast to coast, having twice cooked for the President, is now on a full-tilt, evangelical crusade. Food, she insists, healthy, homegrown food, should be available to all, not just those who can afford to eat at Chez Panisse.

ALICE WATERS: I think it’s a kind of food that needs to be available to everybody. Certainly, growing it yourself is the least expensive way and “most” pleasurable way to eat.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: In keeping with her new outspokenness, Waters is helping a local public school get into the gardening business, with hopes that the students will eat in the cafeteria what they grow in their garden. Ex-prisoners too are now in the food business. The San Francisco County Jail has a garden project where former inmates and homeless people raise food destined for restaurants like Chez Panisse and for farmers markets all around the area. Alice Waters has gotten the Department of Agriculture to look at the project as a prototype for other cities. She’s on a tear. She’s even gotten American Airlines to use organic carrots. Is this too much ado about food, too much sybaritic California nonsense? I don’t think so. I think Alice Waters is on to something. The family meal has disappeared–the nighttime ritual that used to bind us altogether. We’ve become microwaved and McDonaldized, a nation of fast food junkies who don’t think they have the time to prepare or sit down together to a hot, freshly prepared meal. Alice Waters is out to change that. Call it family values meets California cuisine, the pleasure principle joined to a moral crusade. It’s so California and so hopeful.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.