Jan 5, 2012

Alice's Revolution

40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering.

Chez Panisse, Chez Panisse. Alice Waters, Alice Waters, Chez Panisse. Are you getting sick of hearing about this place? Me neither. Alice Waters is the one who started this whole farm to table movement, and for the past few years she and the Chez Panisse Foundation have spearheaded the Edible Schoolyard, a way of empowering children to grow and eat their own food at school.

All Alice ever did, at first, was so modest and simple. She opened a restaurant that served a three-course fixed-price menu. The staff would decide on the menu that day, depending on what produce, meat or fish they had procured. They actually told the diners where the food came from, which was never from far away. And the diners came, year after year, decade after decade, and now it's been forty years. Chez Panisse's philosophy has become de rigueur. She started a revolution.

At Chez Panisse, they even serve mulberry sorbet, the berries always from the same big old tree in Sonoma. I always thought they were flavorless, and although we had a giant mulberry tree when I was growing up, we kids only used the berries to smear on our arms as "blood." Then we went inside and ate canned fruit cocktail.

A revolution, no matter how small, threatens institutions. That's why it's called a revolution. If everyone in the United States ate local, that would be the end of agribusiness, supermarket chains, corporate food services, and the end of a whole industry of transport, refrigeration, shipping, and distribution systems. To say nothing of genetically engineered produce. And in its place? A nation of people who either grow their own food, or buy what is near them, in season. Or they "put up" for the winter. They nourish their land. They share their bounty with those in need, and teach those in need how to grow and forage.

It's happening, but slowly. Even in my "progressive" town, our local elementary school serves an impoverished lunch full of factory meat and white flour. The flavorless apples remain largely untouched, the children preferring--you guessed it--canned fruit cocktail.

Much work remains to be done. But we can do this. So it's January. Buy turnips instead of tomatoes. Invite friends over for a simple meal. Use the money that you would use for a diet program on organic eggs or locally grown meat. Invite friends to cook with you. Plan a modest garden this year.

Let's take on Alice's revolution, one mulberry at a time.