Alice Waters returned to her home state of New Jersey last week amid an unusual storm. All day, a mix of snow and rain poured down while high winds downed trees and pushed the precipitation until it seemed to be coming at cars and house sideways. The box office at William Paterson University, where she was speaking, had a recorded message assuring ticket holders that the event would go on and pleading them to stop calling. Only about one-third of the auditorium was full.
Waters — the chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and the most famous face of the California-style of fresh, seasonal cooking for which she is now an activist — casts a long shadow on my food education. I remember pausing at the entrance to her restaurant the only time B and I ate there, the way one might reflect when entering a temple. She was standing near the entrance when we came in, and I felt as if I was meeting a goddess. The meal was everything you’d imagine if you know anything about Waters — unfussy, simple, close to the earth, and decidedly missing the fancy flair of a fine dining experience. The vegetables, many of them grown on the grounds, were the star of every dish.
And yet, as much as Waters has guided and influenced the movement that has so informed my sense of how to cook, she has also felt alien to me — or rather alienated me. Hers is a French-style of classical cooking and, even when she makes a, say, chickpea curry, it does not in any way resemble what the Indian equivalent of that dish may taste like. My experience as the child of working-class immigrants isn’t reflected in her culinary movement, except for its advocacy of greater rights for farm workers. We are the objects to be sympathized with and lifted, not the creators who might champion and evolve the movement.