SPENCER MICHELS: From the outside, it is a modest restaurant on a busy street in Berkeley, California. But food writers say that for more than 28 years, Chez Panisse has had a major role in changing how America eats and thinks about eating. This establishment is a temple to fresh, mostly organic, good tasting, ripe ingredients. Every afternoon, the cooks get together with the chef to discuss the night's menu, innovating and modifying recipes as they peel the skin from the hundreds of cloves of garlic.
SPOKESMAN: I guess I'll probably do that wrap-slice thing, where you sauté...
SPENCER MICHELS: Chez Panisse, along with an increasing number of restaurants in the nation, has pushed American cuisine into the big leagues, rivals of the gourmet emporiums in France and Italy and the Far East. The founder of the restaurant is Alice Waters, who has crusaded from this pulpit in favor of fresh food, simply and well- prepared, and served to families eating together, a practice Waters says is becoming increasingly rare. She has appropriated parts of her craft from France, the Mediterranean, from Chinese markets in the neighborhood, and of course, from California.
SPENCER MICHELS: So here it is, November, almost Thanksgiving. What's really in season around here? What have we got here?
ALICE WATERS, Chef/Owner, Chez Panisse: Well, these beautiful Savoy cabbages are in season, and it's the farmers who are interested in these varieties, these antique varieties of fruits and vegetables that kind of disappeared, because we were more interested in ship-ability than we were in flavor. I got this yesterday at the farmer's market, in Berkeley.
SPENCER MICHELS: And this is?
ALICE WATERS: This is a brussel sprout. And I'm not even sure people know how these are grown anymore.
SPENCER MICHELS: I never saw one of these before. This is a stalk?
ALICE WATERS: A stalk of brussel sprouts, and you just pick them off like that.
SPENCER MICHELS: Do you like brussel sprouts?
ALICE WATERS: I didn't, but now I do. I never knew about fresh brussel sprouts.
SPENCER MICHELS: What is the cuisine you prepare here? What do you call it?
ALICE WATERS: Well, I am certainly inspired by the Mediterranean, because we have very similar weather. But it has Asian influences and Mexican influences. Essentially, it's food that comes from the market that day.
SPENCER MICHELS: And across the country, in a cold climate, is there anything fresh that you can buy?
ALICE WATERS: In Wisconsin, there's a restaurant there that cooks exactly the way we do, exactly. But they have a root cellar in the winter, and they dry some of the vegetables, but they buy them all from organic farmers nearby. When you buy food from people who are taking care of the land, then you're... you're supporting somebody who's thinking about the future, and supporting somebody who's conserving our natural resources.
SPENCER MICHELS: The main thing you're talking about is freshness in food, integrity of food. Why is that sort of revolutionary?
ALICE WATERS: I think it's revolutionary because we've gotten so far away from a certain understanding about food in one's life. And I... I think it kind of got lost in the 1950's, with the deep freeze, and the transportation, and the television that came in. And we forgot that food is about nourishment, and food is about agriculture, and food is about coming to the table. It's about culture. I heard that 85 percent of the kids in this country don't have one meal with their family, and so we're seeing a real breakdown of our culture, because it's at the table that we become civilized. It's where we communicate, and we need to bring people back to the table in a delicious way.
SPENCER MICHELS: Waters is practicing what she preaches. She is closing Chez Panisse for Thanksgiving, and will have her holiday dinner in Rhode Island, with family and friends.
JIM LEHRER: And to Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for the next course, we turn to molly O'Neill, a columnist for the "New York Times" and author of "The New York Cookbook;" Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of a national weekly radio show about food, and author of "The Italian Country Table," among other cookbooks; and Rick Bayless, owner of the Frontera Grill in Chicago and author of "Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen." Thanks for being with us. Molly O'Neill, do you think that the changes that Alice Waters and others have made in American cooking-- the use of the very fresh ingredients, mostly organic-- has that changed the way Thanksgiving is cooked around the country?
MOLLY O'NEILL, The New York Times: I'm not so sure, to tell you the truth. I think Thanksgiving is America's most traditional meal, and I think in certain pockets certainly, food has gotten better across the board. But Thanksgiving dinner is one of those things that families don't really want to touch. They want... the whole mythology is about doing as your forefathers did. Now, we could make an argument that our forefathers cooked organic, but I'm not sure that that's translating to the sweet potatoes that'll be on the table today.
MARGARET WARNER: Rick Bayless, do you agree with that?
RICK BAYLESS, Chef, Frontera Grill: Well, I actually think that there is a change happening. And I look at the way that I cook my Thanksgiving dinner, and yes, it pays great homage to my forefathers, especially to my grandmother, who taught me to prepare that meal. But we use fresh sage and fresh thyme in it, we grind our pepper fresh. And my grandmother didn't do that when I was growing up in the 50's. So I think there is some change happening.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what do you think, Lynne?
LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER, Food Writer: I disagree with both of you. Or let me put it this way: I think there's another dimension to this. I think more and more what we're seeing is food on the Thanksgiving table that's not been made by the hands or not been prepared by the hands of the people sitting around the table. I mean, I'm thinking about how many people are ordering Thanksgiving from the Internet, how many people are using packaged, canned. And I agree with both of you about this idea that it is our tradition, and we always have traditional foods. But I'm concerned about how we're pulling away. A segment of the population has become very aware of where our food comes from, and we have an incredible abundance available. But we're so busy, everyone says they don't have time to cook.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Lynne Rossetto Kasper, staying with you, how do you explain this, this sort of passion for food in some circles, and all kinds of emphasis on organic food, and the emphasis on health in the culture, and yet many of us eat a lot from takeout places?
LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER: Well, this is the irony, Elizabeth, I think, that at a time in our history when we're more concerned about our personal health probably than at any other time, we have given over the nourishment of our bodies to industry, I mean to people who we don't know, and people whose motive is profit. Now, profit's not a bad thing. That's what companies are about. But when I eat, I want to eat food that I know I've prepared, or that people I trust and know care about me have prepared. And I think part of it is we're still working out how to deal with what the technical revolution has done to our lives. I've spent about six years in Italian homes researching Italian country food, and there's something very striking to me, that I can't imagine an Italian soccer coach or an Italian dance teacher scheduling a practice during dinner hour. It would never happen. No one would show up. Yet most of my friends are ferrying their kids all over every single evening. As Alice said earlier, most children never sit down with their families. I think we're just learning how to straighten out the priorities. We're working it out as we go.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Molly O'Neill, what's your take on that?
MOLLY O'NEILL: Well, I'm really interested in what Lynne has to say. I mean, I know that there's been an increase in catered Thanksgiving meals, but my own experience is that because families have gotten thrown apart, and people live all over the place, what ends up happening is that Thanksgiving becomes a reunion time. And I'm seeing in my own life a lot more potluck, with various members of the family bringing single dishes, instead of the onus-- or the glory-- of the entire meal being laid to rest on one set of hands. I think absolutely it's harder to get a family together. When people say that they don't have time to cook, what I've found in my own reporting is that Americans don't have any less time, if you put all the time together. But what we don't have as much of are long pieces of time. And we haven't adapted our cooking to cooking in shorter intervals, maybe doing a little bit one night and a little bit more the next night, so that you can put together a glorious family meal.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Rick Bayless, let's talk more generally for a minute about American cuisine. How would you define American cuisine?
RICK BAYLESS: Oh, it's that real melting pot, you know? It's... we've always considered ourselves a melting pot nation, but we're certainly seeing it as American cuisine is emerging in a new way. I think basically back during that world war ii time, we lost our roots, we stopped understanding what it really means to have a regional cuisine that's right there in the ground, and we started all eating pretty much the same way. But then back in the 1960's and 1970's, I think we began to get the sense that that wasn't very satisfying, and so now we've got a new American cuisine emerging, and it's really, really taking from all the different cultures that are there. And so we think nothing at all, like at my Thanksgiving dinner, of pouring a beautiful balsamic vinegar over the green beans. Now, it's not the mushroom green bean casserole that my grandmother always made, but it's something that I learned about when I went on a trip. And I was reinforced by some of my chef friends who taught me the glories of that balsamic. So I think that this is the kind of thing that we're weaving in now, and that's American cuisine. It takes sort of the best of a lot of traditions and it weaves it in, though I would definitely say that American cooks cook differently than the cooks in those... the country of origin for those inspirations.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lynne Rossetto Kasper, how would you define American cuisine?
LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER: I think it's, as Rick said, it's evolving. And I think one of the great differences is that in older cultures-- Europe, Asia, the South Americas, Central America, even-- your food and what you eat is part of who you are. But the reason for that is that those cultures have behind them thousands of years of agriculture, where people were living from their own land. They were growing their own food, and what they ate truly was who they were. So when the industrial revolution came along, for most of those cultures, it was kind of a blip on the screen. That deep identity with, as a civilized person, you eat in a certain way, was still there. But we were the new kids on the block. We came from that heritage, but we were very new when the industrial revolution came along. We didn't have that deep sense of a tie to the land. So we embraced the technological-- you know, the science. Think of what the Home Ec Movement did to food. Think of our love of new, of big, of made by industry. So part of this is that we're working through that, and I think we're developing a very different definition of what a cuisine is. I think whereas you define a cuisine in an older culture as being what the people in that culture identify themselves by, we are this great combination of peoples, and our identity is going to be much more complicated. Our food is much more complicated. Rick, who's an expert in Mexican food, comes from Oklahoma, and is putting balsamic vinegar on his green beans. But that's us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Go ahead, sorry.
LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER: We're the great students.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Molly O'Neill, do you think that American cuisine has joined the big leagues?
MOLLY O'NEILL: American cuisine has definitely joined the big leagues. But I'm not so sure that it's as much about food as it is about the economics of it all. New York has become the new Paris. Is that because we have some fantastic chefs working in New York? Absolutely. But it's also because it's become tremendously difficult, because of various tax reasons, to run a great restaurant in Paris, particularly, but throughout France. I have to sort of take a longer view. I agree we're in the process of minting an incredible cuisine. Right now, we're in the world spotlight. But that's... it's not the first time that's happened in our American history, that at the turn of the last century, New York City was a dining destination, and we were importing chefs right and left to Delmonico's, to a number of the traditional restaurants. And it seems to ride in waves. Times of affluence give us the time or the energy to think about what we eat, and to identify food as a potentially upwardly mobile tool. And I feel that that's going on as much as anything else.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. We have very little time left, but I want each of you, starting with you, Rick Bayless, to tell me what you're adding to the menu tomorrow besides, in your case, Rick, the green beans with the balsamic vinegar. Very briefly, because I want each of you to tell me.
RICK BAYLESS: It's going to be a relish that's made out of cranberries and hechima, because I do Mexican food, with a little bit of orange and a little bit of dried red chili in it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oh, yummy. Lynne Rossetto Kasper, what are you...
LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER: Well, I'm adding a 16th- century sweet pizza. It's pears with rosemary and basil and black pepper and a bit of sugar. And it's from the 16th century, from Tuscany.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oh, it sounds great. Molly O'Neill?
MOLLY O'NEILL: I'm making a toasted curry pumpkin soup with chili roasted pumpkin seeds.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oh, my mouth is watering. Thank you all very much. Happy Thanksgiving.
MOLLY O'NEILL: Happy Thanksgiving.
LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER: Happy Thanksgiving.
RICK BAYLESS: Happy Thanksgiving.