In defense of Alice Waters
Tue Jan 27 2009
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="131" caption="She promotes a mass-market product? Burn her!"][/caption]
The savaging of Alice Waters has reached a fevered pitch. Once deified, the seasonal-food saint has recently been the subject of searing critiques, sparked by negative remarks from Anthony Bourdain. It seems that his damning comments about what he called "her wildly hubristic letter to the (then) President-elect" have opened the floodgates for people who perhaps weren't so crazy about Waters to begin with, but didn't have the courage to speak first. I, for one, understand the origins of the attacks: While I've never met Waters, she does exude a certain off-putting self-righteousness in her public persona; her approach often seems heavy-handed and inflexible; and reports of her voting-booth absenteeism are especially troubling. But the deluge of assaults from people who are just piling on has gone too far.
Sure, it's easy to find examples of Waters breaking with her own dogma, but that doesn't necessarily make her a hypocrite. The Feedbag dresses her down for flying chefs to D.C. with their "local" ingredients, but should the leaders of the environmental movement be expected to never board planes or hold events with a measurable carbon footprint, even when the potential of reaching a national and international audience is so great? And Todd Kliman of NPR suggests that Waters supports an unyielding, exclusive reliance on local ingredients, but has she ever said that chefs should never use ingredients from afar? I'd be willing to bet that a tour of the Chez Panisse pantry would reveal many specialty products from around the world—and I doubt Waters would deny it. In fact, a look at the restaurant's most recent menu shows that Gulf shrimp are offered today, certainly not local to Berkeley, California, and clearly not something she is trying to hide, either.
In case it isn't already abundantly obvious, there are many ethical and environmental issues related to the foods we choose to eat. True, it would be silly and impractical to refuse all global products, yet there's nothing wrong with trying to support local agriculture as much as possible. And while the current economy underscores one of the biggest challenges to local, organic foods (specifically, that they aren't cheap and accessible to everyone), the reality is that the people most devoted to the locavore cause are the ones trying to find solutions to this exact problem, among them being Waters's initiative to create vegetable gardens in school yards. Todd Kliman asks, "Do we really need to know the provenance of an egg?" Perhaps not always. But for anyone who's tasted a fresh egg from well-raised, well-fed chickens, the answer should be clear enough: as often as possible, yes.