It All Comes Down To Taste

When I did some research on Alice Waters, I found both articles of extreme praise and subtle condescension. Some people love her through and through, attempting to emulate everything she stands for. Others, though, while complimenting her talent and intentions, quietly allude to her hard and fast philosophies as elitist; they say her lifestyle is not one that the average American can live up to.

I say you can hate on Alice Waters if you want, but you have to admit that people respect her first and foremost because her food is legendarily delicious.

A quick review: Alice Waters opened her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, in 1971. Today it is one of the most highly regarded restaurants not only in the United States, but in the world.  Chez Panisse was one of the first restaurants to use local, organic ingredients and hormone-free meats. Waters’ choice for fresh and local food was initially just because she knew that these ingredients gave her food the best flavor. Now, though, people know Alice Waters as a local and organic food activist, crusader for the Slow Food movement, and mother of The Edible Schoolyard. Slow Food USA works to globally promote “good, clean, and fair” food and the “from plate to planet” ideology. Slow Food emphasizes that food is a universal right, and highlights the link between the food we eat and the health of the earth. The Edible Schoolyard sets up farming programs in schools, where children learn to organically grow and cook produce.

No one would listen to Alice Waters or travel thousands of miles to eat at Chez Panisse if her food didn’t taste good. And that’s what initially drove her search for organic ingredients – taste.  In a 1996 interview, Waters was asked why she prefers organic produce and she responded, “Taste, for sure.” She then continued with her other reasons, “And I’m interested in it because I know I need to support the people who are taking care of the land and thinking of the future, people who are thinking about how communities come together. It’s my feeling that that can happen when the person growing the food is connected with the person who is eating it.”

I think that many Americans have the same line of thinking – taste is the initial draw to local and organic ingredients, and the environmental benefits are an added appeal. The environmental impact may gain importance for some, but I’ve found that most people were originally attracted by taste.

I talked to my class’s Head Adviser, Ben Taylor, who also happens to be a food enthusiast, and he said the same thing. Mr. Taylor is a dedicated cook; a subscriber to Cook’s Illustrated, he said that cooking is the center of gravity for his friendship circle. “It would be lying to say that the environment is my primary motivation,” he said. “The best taste is my priority.”

Mr. Taylor’s high standards for ingredients, though, go hand in hand with the local food movement – he referred to tomatoes that hail from afar as “phlegm balls.”

Often times the terms local and organic are clumped together, but I saw organic strawberries at the super market grown in Mexico, and there’s a farm in the town next to mine that uses pesticides. One does not necessarily mean the other. “Local means more to me than organic,” Mr. Taylor said. “From an environmental standpoint it can be superior. You could have an organic product that has created a gigantic carbon footprint to get to your supermarket.”

And, to those Alice Waters critics out there, you can shop local without breaking the bank. You don’t have to spend your whole paycheck at Whole Foods to find local food. There’s Elm City Market, for one thing, which I wrote about in a previous post. Mr. Taylor recommends Big Y. He said that when the grocery store near his house turned to Big Y, he was initially disappointed. A lot of the imported ingredients he liked weren’t there. But then he noticed a lot more local produce. And it’s true – in the name of local economies, the earth, and health, Big Y is working to promote local ingredients.

The subtle criticism of Alice Waters that I have encountered suggest that she is unrealistic with her expectations that everyone will soon enough live as she does. These same articles, though, always mention the delectable flavor of her food and the beauty of the ingredients. So no, we can’t all live like her, buying solely from farmers’ markets and cooking with fireplaces in our kitchens. But if we follow our taste buds, we will be on the right track.


1 Response to “It All Comes Down To Taste”

  1. 1 linda May 3, 2012 at 2:02 am

    Taste and environmental concerns to be sure. But many of us, for health reasons, want to avoid chemicals, added hormones, etc in our food

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