The Aura of Arugulance
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: April 18, 2009
BERKELEY, Calif. - The first thing I wanted to do in the Bay Area was
go out to Skywalker Ranch and ask George Lucas about a disturbing
conversation we'd had at an Obama inaugural party in Washington.
Lucas, the creator of "Star Wars," had told me that I had gotten Dick
Cheney completely wrong, that Cheney was no Darth Vader. I felt
awful. Had I been too hard on Vice?
Lucas explained politely as I listened contritely. Anakin Skywalker
is a promising young man who is turned to the dark side by an older
politician and becomes Darth Vader. "George Bush is Darth Vader," he
said. "Cheney is the emperor."
I was relieved. In "Star Wars" terms, Dick Cheney was more evil than
Darth Vader. I hadn't been hard enough on Vice!
Lucas was on his way to Europe and didn't have time to elaborate in
person. But he sent me this message confirming our conversation: "You
know, Darth Vader is really a kid from the desert planet near
Crawford, and the true evil of the universe is the emperor who pulls
all the strings."
Sated, I went over to talk to the other celestial celebrity in San
Francisco who inspires cultlike devotion for what she does with green
cooking rather than blue screens: Alice Waters, who has created her
own mythical empire of healthy food with her cookbooks, edible
gardens in public schools and renowned Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse.
Waters has been much in the news lately as the fairy godmother of the
White House organic vegetable garden, an idea she has been pushing
since 1993. Instead, Bill Clinton installed a seven-seat hot tub on
the South Lawn. Though he loved to eat, Bill was more a consumer of
fast food than slow food, as Waters calls her movement to persuade
Americans to sup on simple, locally grown foods free of pesticides
The 64-year-old Waters, who got her taste for revolutions in the '60s
in school at Berkeley with the antiwar and women's movements, wears a
gold peace sign on a necklace. But with her radiant skin and her
mesmerizing, hesitating arias about the sensual pleasures of food,
she seems more like a '30s movie actress than a graying hippie. (I'm
not surprised to find out she loves Turner Classic Movies and
Hollywood's vintage hotel, Chateau Marmont, that she named her
restaurant after a character in Marcel Pagnol's 1930s trilogy of
movies, and that she thinks of her restaurant as theater.)
She wasn't invited to the opening of the White House garden, and she
understands why the Obamas would want "to keep a kind of distance
from me and from that whole celebrity chef" aura. Barack Obama got
upset during the campaign that he was painted as a finicky elitist
after he complained about the price of arugula at Whole Foods.
She's well aware of the criticism leveled at her in blogs for
condescension and food snobbery. In a post on Friday called "Alice in
Wonderland," National Review [see below] stirred the pot against her:
"The truth is, organic food is an expensive luxury item, something
bought by those who have the resources."
She says wryly: "I'm just put into that arugulance place. I own a
fancy restaurant. I own an expensive restaurant. I never thought of
it as fancy. People don't know we're supporting 85 farms and ranches
and all of that.
"And so my first thing I say, it's going to cost more and I want to
pay for my food. I go to the farmers' market; it makes me feel like
I'm making a donation."
Since the Obamas haven't taken her up on her offer of a "kitchen
cabinet," she wants to do her first TV show called "The Green
Kitchen." She can do a soliloquy on the "discernment" of choosing the
most ambrosial orange. But she also says that a recession is a time
when people need to learn the basics "a kind of everyday cooking,
in a really tasty way. We're really trying to take the 'ie' out of foodie."
She says she's sick of hearing about diets and obesity in America,
and believes neither would be so prevalent if her European-style
"delicious revolution" succeeded.
Waters is a visionary. She imagines a "peace garden" on the Gaza
Strip that would employ people "from all sides." She imagines a high
school where the kids could run the whole cafeteria themselves,
learning math, nutrition, art and food. She imagines starting gardens
at Monticello and Mount Vernon that would "become the source of all
food in the White House." She imagines food being covered on the
front page and the business page not the food page, or on TV by
"lesser" reporters like "the weatherman."
Her most ambitious vision involves President Obama, who didn't want
beets in his garden. "I would just like to serve him some golden
beets sometime that were roasted in the oven, that were not
overcooked, that were dressed with a lovely little vinaigrette, maybe
even diced in a salad," she says in her seductive way. "Squeeze 'em
with a little lime. It's fantastically nutritious."
Alice in Wonderland
The gushing of Waters is all wet.
By Julie Gunlock
April 17, 2009
In an interview shortly after the groundbreaking, Alice Waters the
organic-food world's most active and least humorous spokesperson
commented on the new White House vegetable garden: "The most
important thing that Michelle Obama did was to say that food comes
from the land. . . . People have not known that. They think it comes
from the grocery store."
Oh, really is that what people think? To whom, exactly, is Ms.
Waters referring? Is she referring to the millions of people living
in the grain-belt states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and
Missouri states one cannot drive across without spending hours
staring at corn and soybean fields? The millions living along the
Pacific Northwest coast and Alaska who are supported by the fishing
industry? The fishermen of Gloucester, Mass.? Maybe she is talking
about people living in Wisconsin where dairy farms and cow pastures
are as ubiquitous as art galleries in New York. Or perhaps she is
referring to the thousands of people like me, who in the suburbs of
an East Coast metropolis just throw a few Lowe's-purchased plants
in the ground, and hope for some rain to support a small backyard
garden. Yes, Ms. Waters, even these "people" know that the grocery
store doesn't spontaneously produce food.
Her condescension is typical of a food culture that is increasingly
withdrawn from mainstream America a food culture that increasingly
preaches to the average American consumer that eating non-organic
food is bad for you. The truth is, organic food is an expensive
luxury item, something bought by those who have the resources. Those
who can afford it and want it should have it, but organic food is not
a panacea for the world's ills.
It may be easier for Ms. Waters and her cadre to simply label
Americans stupid and ill-informed than to tackle the real reason
people are not eating more organic and locally grown food i.e.,
most Americans simply are not able to afford it. Even 60 Minutes
known for asking tough questions and making interviewees sweat
basically punted on this issue. Highlighted on the program earlier
this year, Waters introduced Lesley Stahl to a man that grows organic
grapes and sells them for a staggering $4 a pound (to give
non-shoppers some perspective on this price, grocery-store grapes
usually cost under $2 a pound, and even most meat comes in under $4 a pound).
While Stahl did seem surprised at the high price, Waters never
directly addressed the cost issue; instead, she made an offhand
remark that people would simply have to make the choice between
expensive grapes and Nike tennis shoes. What she fails to appreciate
is that some people can't buy those tennis shoes either. It is not
about making choices between two expensive items, it is about
something much more fundamental. Particularly in this economic
downturn, when about one in eight adults is currently out of a job
and looking for work, many families are not just cutting back on
luxuries, but are reassessing their food budgets and trying to save
every penny they can. If Waters had been a little more frank, and
simply affirmed that $4 a pound for grapes is a steep price that most
people can't afford, fair enough; instead, viewers were treated to a
lecture on how we simply need to make better choices.
There are others, in her view, who are making better choices
namely, the Europeans. Waters gushes over the European slow-food
movement even as she dismisses American food sensibilities. In one
interview, she hastily summed up American food history: "Americans
don't have deep gastronomic roots. They wanted to get away from the
cultures of Europe or wherever they came from. We stirred up that
melting pot pretty quickly. Then fast food came in and took over."
It is a stunningly simplistic assessment of American food culture,
making it sound as if the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and were
greeted with a combo meal from Wendy's (supersized, of course). In
fact, America has an amazing and varied food culture whole books,
documentaries, and movies have centered on it. Has Waters visited New
York, Little Havana in Miami, or border towns in Texas? And what
about the millions of chef-owned restaurants serving up those
treasured American comfort dishes that can make even the most elite
food critic smile? Food traditions in this country have endured. My
own family came to the United States from French Canada over 150
years ago, yet my mother continues to have tourtière (pork pie) and
croton (pork spread sort of a poor man's pâté) every Christmas Eve.
Waters, who has lived in Berkeley, Calif., most of her adult life
cooking things just dug out of California's rich, sun-drenched earth,
is clearly out of touch with the broader American reality.
Consider, also, her campaign for a White House vegetable garden.
Waters has been badgering U.S. presidents about this vegetable garden
for years. In 2000, she wrote a letter to Pres. Bill Clinton about
the importance of a White House garden, saying: "I can think of no
more powerful way to ground your legacy than to leave behind you a
kitchen garden and the compost pile to nourish it." Really? A garden
and a compost pile? Grounding President Clinton's legacy in compost?
Did she think about how this sounds, alongside Clinton's other goals,
such as Middle East peace, a secure and nuclear-free Korean
peninsula, health-care reform, and Russia's peaceful transition to democracy?
In Alice Waters's wonderland, all is made better with the growing of
vegetables. But regular Americans know better. Many enjoy buying
organic, visiting their local markets, and gardening, but they also
know that the purpose of food is nourishment. America's robust
agricultural sector has made food cheaper and more plentiful not just
for our nation's citizens, but for the entire world.
Environmentalists may dismiss big, industrial farms, but it is these
largely American innovations that are helping feed the world, and
keeping costs down for coupon clippers like me.
Julie Gunlock, a former congressional staffer, is now a stay-at-home mom.