A Delicious Revolution

21 Nov 2012

The American author Eric Schlosser, a personal hero and one of the great investigative reporters of our times, has pointed out that in the United States, we live in, what Eric calls, a fast food nation. Fast food, sad to say, is the dominant way people eat in the United States. But it’s not just the U.S. I feel like Eric should re-write his book and call it “fast food world” because, I think, fast food is quickly becoming the dominant way people eat everywhere. It may not be as pervasive or as deeply rooted yet in places like Latin or South America, but, let’s not fool ourselves, fast food is spreading. I see it in the Lima airport, and in cities, and tourist spots. Everywhere there’s a Coke machine there’s fast food. It’s insidious. It’s kind of a fact of modern life.

I’ve just come to recognize myself over the last decade or so – is that fast food is not only about food. It’s bigger than that – way bigger. It’s about culture. And it affects more than just our diets and health – it effects our values, and rituals, traditions, behaviors, expressions, laws, systems and ways of doing things. Fast food and fast food values don’t just happen at chain restaurants along motorways or in airports and train stations, they permeate everything from the way we look at the world, to how we operate in the world, to the ways we do business, to our architecture, to how we feel about ourselves, how we treat each other, the clothes we wear, what we buy and sell, our entertainment, our schools, our parks, our politics. Even the ways we interact with each other. Or, in many cases, these days, don’t interact with each other. Fast food culture – so to speak – has become the dominant culture in the U.S. And I worry it’s becoming the dominant culture in the world. The values of fast food “culture”, in my mind, saturate our ways of thinking and doing things so thoroughly that, in my opinion, they completely degrade our human experience. And, to be honest with you, I don’t think we even see them anymore. They’re just part of the landscape.

An example of a value of this fast food “culture” is uniformity. The idea that everything should be the same wherever you go. You know, the hamburger you get in Beijing should be exactly like the one you get in Bogota. The t-shirt you buy in Buenos Aires should match exactly the one you find in . Or there’s something wrong with it. We take this value for granted. We actually like it a lot. It thrills us. It comforts us. But, like all Fast food values, it masks deeper, darker issues. In this case, I would say, the pressure to conform, the loss of individuality, the respect for uniqueness. Even prejudice and control. All eggs should look the same. All houses should look alike.

Efficiency is another fast food value. Things should happen really fast – the faster the better. You order, you get it. You want it, you should have it. Right then. No waiting. When we live like this, I fear that not only do our expectations become warped, but we, also, become easily distractible and lose the sense that things take time – that the best things take time – like growing food or cooking or getting to know someone. These days, if there’s not instant gratification, we get frustrated. There’s no maturity, time for reflection, no patience.

Availability. That’s another fast food value. The idea that we should be able to get anything we want, wherever we are, whenever we want it, 24/7. You should be able to get a tomato in Switzerland in the middle of winter. You should be able to get Evian water in Nairobi. This twisted idea of availability, to me, not only spoils people but causes them to lose track of where they are in time and space. Seasons stop mattering. What’s indigenous to certain places becomes unclear, maybe even irrelevant. Local culture becomes less important than the big, homogenized, Fast food, global reality; or, in my view, unreality.

Cheapness. This one drives me crazy. In the United States there’s a complete mixing up of the idea of “affordability” with “cheapness.” There’s a deep feeling that value is equated with “bargains”. No one understands the real price of things anymore because, one, no one tells them and, two, everything is supported artificially with subsidies, credit and corporate sleight-of-hand. Even in Northern California, which is a fairly enlightened place, I’ve been accused many times of being a “farmer’s market philanthropist” because I believe in paying people for the true cost of their work and their products. People say I’m artificially driving up the prices of food in markets when I’m willing to pay the farmers what they deserve. It is the discounted prices that are artificial. When I hear someone say, “I got this cheaper here,” I just feel, intuitively, that somebody, somewhere, is being sold out. You cannot not pay for something here without someone over there not getting what they deserve. Or you can’t not pay for something here and not expect to have other problems in your life over there – like with the environment or your health. And, those, in the end, are going to cost you much more.

“More is Better.” The more you can pile on your plate, the happier you’ll be! The more massive the store, the better. The more choices you’re offered, the better. There’s no room for discernment. There’s just volume. And most of the choices are the same, anyway. It’s really just an “illusion of choice.” No matter what you pick, it’s basically one of the same three things just made by the same three companies.

Some Fast food values can be more abstract and elusive. Like terminology, for instance, and how it’s used – or misused – and the confusion around it. I mean, what does “organic” mean these days? “natural?” For that matter, what does “local” mean? Or “fair trade?” “Recycled?” “Hand made?” “GMO?” It seems the definition of these terms – terms some of us helped bring into the mainstream – have been hijacked. They seem to fluctuate and have more to do with marketing than an attempt to clarify and inform people. And what’s scarier is how fast these terms get hijacked. When we find a new term that works for us – like “sustainable” – it gets grabbed immediately by fast food culture and is used everywhere indiscriminately. And, in no time, the term becomes meaningless.

And behind this issue of terminology is the issue of standards… There seem to be standards but they don’t mean anything. Or worse, they reduce standards. A tragic example of this is what’s happening in Europe where the EU is telling shepherds in the Pyrenees that they can’t sell the cheese they’ve been making for generations because it doesn’t meet certain safety standards. And to meet these standards they have to process their milk in ways that removes all its uniqueness and taste. They have to use government-sanctioned – pasteurized – milk.

I know this all sounds intense but to me, and to others, it IS intense. But I think those of us committed to feeding people better and taking care of the land, can have a huge effect counteracting these forces. Fast food culture infiltrates the culture at large through our food systems, smothering our taste buds. And who knows more about taste buds than cooks and gastronomes? We’re on the front lines. We’re the people that can change people’s lives by offering them real food. And when they inevitably fall in love with real food, then they embrace the culture that has brought that food to the table.

So, yes, there is a fast food “culture” operating in the world. And, yes, it is affecting us. And, yes, it needs to be reckoned with. Fortunately, there’s a counterforce, an antidote to fast food culture. And it’s called—no surprise!—Slow Food culture. Slow Food culture is not as flashy as fast food culture but it’s deeper, and richer, and more fulfilling and alive. And like fast food culture, Slow Food culture, also, has it’s own behaviors and practices and values – what I call, “Slow Food values”.

Slow Food Values are basically human values. They’ve been with us since the beginning of time: ripeness, aliveness, beauty, patience, integrity, community, economy, friendship, honesty… They are nurturing, enriching, life enhancing, creative, joyful and truly sustainable. Fast food values are foisted upon us with the help of advertising and indoctrination. But the great news is that Slow Food Values are part of our biological makeup.

My journey at Chez Panisse is a good example. When we started the restaurant, in 1971, we weren’t trying to do anything grandiose, we weren’t trying start a revolution. Ok, maybe a little bit… But, what we were really trying to do was capture and re-create a way of life I had experienced in France during my college years. At that time, the U.S was all about convenience – TV dinners and frozen vegetables and microwaves. It was really the beginnings of fast food nation. France was different. At the time, it had rituals and ways of life that were – in contrast to the United States – full of things like tradition and community and interconnectedness and agriculture and attention to the little pleasures of every day life. It was a Slow Food culture. And it totally seduced me. And this was how I lucked out because every decision we made back then to bring this culture to Berkeley just, without even thinking about it, expressed these Slow Food values.

For example, when we started, we couldn’t find the ingredients we wanted or needed to make food that tasted like the food I’d had in France. So, we had to go out and find these things for ourselves in unconventional places. If we saw a fruit tree in front of someone’s house, we’d knock on their door and ask to pick their cherries. If we found out someone we knew had a big backyard, we’d ask them to plant a garden with seeds we’d brought from France. My own backyard became a little farm providing most of the restaurant’s salad for a few years. If we saw some wild fennel growing on the outskirts of town, we’d pick it and cook it that night. If we knew someone who was going out fishing, we’d ask them to bring what they caught to the restaurant so we could cook it. It was basic hunter-gatherer mode but it wasn’t being practiced in the U.S. at the time. Slowly, day-by-day, without even realizing it, we created a patchwork of alternative suppliers – backyard gardeners and local fisherman and wine makers and foragers. A small, thriving community started to form – a small, sustainable community.

After awhile, we found actual farms within driving distance of Chez Panisse. And we tasted things at all of them. We quickly discovered that the people who grew better tasting things happened to be the organic farmers. So, we just naturally started buying more things from them. It wasn’t really a political thing, at first, this emphasis on organic – it’s just what tasted better. Pretty quickly, word spread that we were paying people MORE for organic ingredients. So more and more of these small farmers approached us. Some people, seeing this new market, even started farms of their own. We pretty much created our own economy, one that hadn’t existed before; one without a middleman.

Later we wanted a farm of our own and we started making our own bread and commissioning ranchers to raise livestock and local winemakers to bottle wine for us. Now, we have a network of over 85 suppliers – some just backyard gardeners with one peach tree and others fairly sophisticated organic farmers with acres of land. Our suppliers became so important to us that – in the late 70’s – we started writing their names on our menus. It was great because people started asking, “Are Bob Cannard’s beans here yet?” “Are Mas Masumotos’ peaches here?” A real connection was established between the people who were growing the food and the people eating it.

This close connection to the land led us, naturally, to start buying and cooking things in season. Because this was when things tasted the best and were nearby. You know, we only serve tomatoes for a few months in the summer, now, and that’s it – unless we use some we’d canned for the winter. We used to serve salmon all year at the restaurant because you can get pretty good fish up and down the California coast. But we realized, after awhile, that the salmon nearest us actually tasted better and was at its peak only for a couple months out of the year. So, we stopped serving salmon except for those few months. This not only sharpened our appreciation of the local fish but helped us discover that in the Winter, when we normally would’ve served salmon, there were many other delicious, local fish that we and everyone else had overlooked. Two of other most popular dishes are sardines on toast and squid with aioli from the wood oven, both from Monterey Bay, no more than an hour away!

Now if we really want to change the food system in this world, really want to make lasting change, the greatest thing we can do is educate and empower the next generation. If we turn our children on to all the things I’m talking about, the kind of living we imagine would become second nature to them. I really believe that “public education is our last truly democratic institution.” School is the place where we can reach every child while their values are still being formed. This is why I believe so profoundly in what I’ve been calling Edible Education—a Slow Food curriculum that begins when kids first go to school and continues through their whole academic life. I shared a panel with an incredible woman from Uganda who is spearheading Slow Food’s Thousand Gardens in Africa project two weeks ago and she said so rightly, ‘If you want a tree to grow straight, you have to influence it before its fully grown’.

I had been a Montessori teacher before I opened Chez Panisse and I had seen first hand how well Maria Montessori’s methods of teaching had worked. Her philosophy is based on an experiential education of the senses. The senses are the pathways into our minds. I believe, when children’s – and adults! – senses are stimulated and opened, not only does their learning improve, but their whole lives become richer, deeper and more beautiful.

In an Edible Education we place sense-oriented experience at the center of scholastic life. We do this by placing food and food concerns at the center of – not only the school lunch program – but at the center of the curriculum of THE WHOLE SCHOOL. Since eating expresses every one of the Slow Food values I’ve been talking about, learning about these values naturally occurs in the course of every students’ day. All classes are affected and energized. It means math becomes a practical, hands-on class taught in the environment of the farm/garden. A language class is enhanced by the translation of recipes or stories from other cultures. A biology class is illuminated by the activity in a compost heap or by studying and observing living animals and their habits. All classes are embedded in real, evolving, living environments. Things like biodiversity and interconnectedness and empathy are experienced instead of just talked about.

And the best news of all, on top of all these other things, is that the schools, themselves, can create sustainable networks beyond themselves – like the little tiny one we did at Chez Panisse years ago. They can start buying food and supplies from local farmers and retailers and sending compost to city parks or back to the farms. My feeling is we should adopt criteria for buying sustainable food in all our schools and institutions…in every country. Not only would we be educating the next generation into this new way of eating but the schools, themselves, could become economic engines for their communities…and all the while serving every child a delicious, free, nutritious, school lunch. This isn’t just “gardens in schools” or an environmental awareness class, or the label on a piece of fruit, it’s a larger and more radical approach to teaching our kids how to live and trust their deeper selves, how to embrace Slow Food culture. And it’s also a way to make sure everyone is fed. It’s a positive and caring way – actually a more traditional way (we’ve just forgotten it).

I really think the biggest challenge facing us today – something that seeps into all the other issues we are facing – is how do we live our lives without adopting the values of fast food culture or compromising with them? Because you can’t compromise with fast food culture. It’s not possible. It has different goals. Once you’ve let those values in they poison everything, like an infection. You can’t cook organic food, for example, and not recycle. The system will break down. You can’t run a three-star restaurant and not pay the people in the kitchen a fair wage. It won’t work. It might work for a while but it will, inevitably, fall apart. When you live in California you can’t say you support local farmers and buy dyed roses year round from Ecuador. It’s self-conflicting and inherently incompatible. If you let even one Fast food value in, you can only get so far before it all starts to corrode and either break down or become dehumanized. The whole thing has to be sustainable. The WHOLE thing… Or it’s not really sustainable.

Many years ago, I tried to think of a phrase to describe what I was doing in the public schools in the United States. I decided to call it A Delicious Revolution. I called it that because, one, I believe that tasty food and pleasure will bring everyone back to the table–back to their senses. But I also believed we needed a revolutionary spirit to get any of this done. I still believe we need that revolutionary spirit to get things done – now more than ever!! But we’re not trying to throw anything over – we’re trying to win people over.

Brillat-Savarin once said, “The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves.” How right he was, how right he still is.

This is an excerpt from Alice Water’s speech delieved at the Semana Mesa Sao Paulo conference on November 5, 2012. It has been reduced for the web.

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