Books

How a Counterculture Memoir by Alice Waters Spoke to 2017

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Every day, Alice Waters puts down her phone and goes for a walk. “I think it deeply interferes with communication,” says the 73-year-old activist, author, chef, and educator, without a hint of irony in her voice. “It’s just a huge distraction. It gives you the impression that you can get love from a cellphone. You act in a very different way without it — engaged. We’re having multiple conversations, texting under the table at dinner, maybe texting a couple of people. We just cannot hold on to it all the time. You’re really distracted when you’re walking around in nature and you’re not looking. Many people are not looking where they’re going — you see them all the time, heads down!”

When we spoke, the diminutive multi-hyphenate — whose memoir, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, was released in September — was in the midst of penning an op-ed letter to the New York Times, to offer some constructive criticism about its coverage of global warming. “I felt there was not nearly enough about food and agriculture,” she says. “Of course, I think it’s an everyday, three-times-a-day opportunity for everybody in this country to make a decision that you know supports the people who take care of the land. Once you get connected in this other way, you make decisions about everything differently. Your use of everything, from plastic to the car you drive.”

The high priestess of the farm-to-table movement, who opened her revolutionary restaurant Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, nearly five decades ago, details her connection to “this other way” — the counterculture, if you will — in her memoir, which ends on the eve of her restaurant’s opening in 1971. But writing it wasn’t easy. The manuscript — the third in a three-book deal signed years before — had been due in 2016, but Waters found herself dragging her feet. The daunting task of being honest and accurate about her life left her feeling reluctant to expose herself. Then the 2016 election came, and everything changed. “What was really important to me was to talk about the empowerment that I felt from the counterculture,” she says. “And how those same things are happening all over again, whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s the war. It’s history repeating itself, or continuing on, escalating. That really became the reason why I finished this book through this past year. I became more passionate, more determined to communicate. And if it had come out a year ago, I’m not sure it would have made the impression that it’s made.”

Coming to My Senses follows Waters’s path from her childhood in New Jersey and Michigan to Southern California to the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the Sixties. Though Waters describes her thinking back then as “romantic and simplistic” and found herself easily intimidated by threats of arrest from the police, the movement left its mark and awakened a revolutionary spirit within her, as she found herself moved by Mario Savio and the impact of nonviolent courses of action. She writes, “When the dominant culture behaves immorally, the way the United States was about the war, civil rights, and freedom of public expression, you begin to feel betrayed.”

Waters became a household name in the food world after introducing the nation to the locavore movement, and her memoir pulls back the curtain to the evolution that led to her activism, a transformation that she says inspired the title of her book. “I usually do think of the [book title] first — and this was more than a year and a half ago — it’s like a mission statement, coming to my senses, my awakening,” she explains. Waters’s impact on American cuisine can be largely pinpointed to the tender salad greens that she came to love as a young woman, being wined and dined in Paris. Upon her return, she searched for farmers who shared her appreciation for fresh, local produce, even going so far as to bring back seeds to grow her own mesclun, native to France and unheard of in this country at that time. The influence of a Chez Panisse salad took on a life of its own, liberating salad courses in this country from bottles of processed dressings and a rigid, bland understanding of vegetables. “I didn’t imagine that Chez Panisse would be anything more than a neighborhood restaurant, like the ones in Paris,” she says. “It was in such sharp contrast to the fast-food culture. I think when we put the farmers’ names on the [menu], we realized that in doing so, we were supporting the organic farming movement in the state of California — that became a very political moment for me.”

Acolytes of Chez Panisse and its figurehead will devour her tale, which brings members of Waters’s longtime tribe into the spotlight, recognizing each of them for their influence on the little organic spot that could. As is to be expected, there’s a story behind each thoughtful trademark of Chez Panisse, from the Art Deco–influenced calligraphy and illustrations used on its cookbooks and menus and posters, particularly those from the early days, to the flowers and work wear donned by Waters and her crew when they first threw open the restaurant’s doors, learning from each meal service as much as they were teaching, blissfully unaware that an American food revolution would follow.

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