Kristina Sepetys reviews
We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto
by Alice Waters with Bob Carrau and Cristina Mueller
Penguin Press, June 2021, Buy Local Link.
We are all part of nature’s cycles and rhythms, so slow food values are already inside every one of us. If we cook and eat and serve food that is ethically grown, not only are we nourishing ourselves, but we are digesting the values of slow food culture, values that guide us to create ecological lives.
—Alice Waters, from We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto
Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters has a new book out this year, and it isn’t a cookbook. “A summing-up of my life’s work,” is how Waters describes We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto.
Those who follow Waters or have read any of her previous 15 cookbooks and memoirs might find much of this new book familiar. A respected advocate for sustainable practices, Waters argues that many of the world’s problems are connected to the choices we make regarding food.
In her very readable 191-page Manifesto, she describes her own efforts to make choices that are better for herself and her community. Rather than offering a prescriptive, practical how-to guide, Waters presents her views through observations, opinions, conversations, and many plucked-from-life anecdotes to illuminate the subject of sustainable eating. She urges us to approach the world and daily life in an engaged, sensorial, mindful way. It’s a practice learned, in part, from her years working as a Montessori teacher.
Waters organizes the book into two parts. The first half, called Fast Food Culture, addresses the negative aspects of an industrialized food system like reliance on convenience and processed foods, how fast food forces uniformity, expectation of immediate gratification, deceptive advertising, and demand for cheapness and quantity over quality. She concludes that this approach wrecks our health as it dehumanizes the ways we live and relate to one another.
“If you’re eating in a fast food restaurant, or in a fast food way,” she writes, “not only are you malnourishing yourself, but you’re also unwittingly digesting the values of this fast food culture.” And once those values are digested, Waters claims, they begin to express themselves in all aspects of our lives.
In the book’s second half, which Waters calls Slow Food Culture, she proposes that slow food is the redress to fast food. Convenience, excess, cheapness, thoughtless eating—the characteristics of fast food culture—are contrasted with beauty, biodiversity, seasonality, stewardship, pleasure in work, simplicity, and interconnectedness. Eating according to slow food principles is good for our personal health, as well as for that of the planet.
I found the second half more absorbing as Waters describes the long development of her own relationship to food and her values. Living in France as a college student in the mid- to late 1960s, she shopped for fresh local ingredients at small local markets and prepared simple meals at home. At that time, few cooks in the United States were thinking about whether their food was seasonal, local, or organic.
That experience in France was still with Waters when she opened Chez Panisse in North Berkeley. Her very first prix fixe menu appeared written on a blackboard offering a mesclun salad with house-made pâté, seared duck breast with green olives, and an almond tart all for $3.95. Waters had a vision for her small restaurant on Shattuck but didn’t realize in those early days that her approach to food would put her on the vanguard of a revolution at a time of political and social change.
“I didn’t fully understand the power of food when I opened Chez Panisse in 1971,” Waters writes on the first page of her Manifesto. “I opened Chez Panisse because feeding people good food felt like the only hopeful thing I could do.” And in the ensuing 50 years, Waters has interacted with many people who have also devoted their lives to “feeding people good food,” whether it be through cooking, regenerative agriculture, relief work, or education, as she describes throughout the book.
Waters has been especially interested in how educating children about healthy and quality eating can be a force for change in our relationship with food. To celebrate the restaurant’s 25th anniversary in 1995, she created the Edible Schoolyard program in North Berkeley, which has become a model for school garden and lunch programs throughout the world.
“Watching my daughter grow up during the mid-1990s and witnessing how she and her friends were learning—and not learning—to feed themselves, it dawned on me that a real opportunity lay in the schools.” A connection with the principal at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in North Berkeley, Neil Smith, led to the establishment of the Edible Schoolyard, a one-acre garden plus kitchen classroom on the school campus. Heritage chickens that lay colorful eggs wander about the garden’s outdoor “classrooms” where students and visitors can also sit to talk and enjoy meals. The program aims to improve school lunch and students’ food choices as it provides lessons and experiences in the garden and kitchen classrooms.
The success of the Edible Schoolyard led to the School Lunch Initiative, a program designed to integrate a nutritious daily lunch and gardening experience into the academic curriculum of all public schools in the United States. A model for other schools throughout the world, according to their website, the Edible Schoolyard Network includes 5,681 programs from 53 U.S. states and territories as well as 75 countries around the world.
The message Waters conveys in her Manifesto is simple: Whenever we make a food choice, we need to ask ourselves, “Is this a slow food decision or a fast food one?” If enough of us eat mindfully in this way, Waters promises the effects “will be monumental.”
Kristina Sepetys writes on local food for Edible East Bay and other publications. Her book reviews, feature articles, and fiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals.