Alice Waters has traveled the world as a chef, but Politics and Prose, a small independent bookstore in northwest Washington, D.C. remains her favorite place to visit.
“There’s no place I’d rather sign books or come to than this book store,” Waters said at the signing of her latest book, “Fanny in France: Travel Adventures of a Chef’s Daughter, with Recipes.”
This is Waters’ second children’s book based on her daughter, Fanny, and her experiences growing up abroad with her mother. It’s a book that makes you want to climb into it and never come out again, says Liz Hottel, Director of Events at Politics and Prose.
Waters fell in love with French food during her time abroad at the Sorbonne, where she was meant to be studying French cultural history. But Waters rarely attended class, choosing instead to study French culture through her stomach.
“I digested French cultural history through food,” she said.
Waters drew inspiration from Eloise at the Plaza when she began writing her children’s books. Her goal was for parents to read the stories aloud to their children when they were young, and then for children to read them on their own as they grew older. She also hoped the book would encourage families to spend more time together. Recalling her time in France, she spoke of families having two hours each day for lunch, so they could return home and eat at their table together.
“This book is a love letter to the French,” Waters said, her soft voice nearly breaking.
Waters took time to read a section from “Fanny in France” called “My Mom’s Special French Rules” which included suggestions ranging from shopping at the local farmer’s market for fresh produce, to knowing when to ask for help and the importance of starting every meal off with a toast.
The floor was then opened to the intergenerational audience for questions. One attendee questioned Waters about her experiences promoting organic foods in the 1980s and ‘90s. For Waters, her choices were never about something being organic; she was simply searching for what tasted best. At that time, organic foods were typically found only in health stores and were rarely appetizing. Being a gastronome after her time in France, Waters searched for ingredients that satisfied her palette, and she found them with local farmers.
Another guest was a teacher and asked Waters what schools could do to bring healthier foods into schools. Waters took this opportunity to discuss her Edible Schoolyard Project which she began with Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif. over twenty years ago. She remembers getting new classes and having students who didn’t want to get dirty but after a week or two they were throwing themselves on the ground.
“It’s amazing what nature does for kids, especially those who don’t [often] interact with it,” Waters said.
Waters believes that school lunch should be an hour-long, academic subject, where students eat and learn together. She also supports students receiving lunch for free and argues the meals should include organic, local ingredients. She suggests serving students tacos while teaching about the Spanish-American War, or have a green salad while discussing geography.
“If we don’t take food out of the fast food category and focus on cultural aspects and history, we’ll never be edibly educated,” Waters said.
Waters ensured that Fanny was edibly educated throughout her youth and she is now a food connoisseur like her mother. Waters also commented on the importance of economical usage of food, recalling a friend of hers in France feeding ten people with just one chicken.
“Every culture since the beginning of time [has] considered food precious,” Waters said, encouraging attendants not to be wasteful when they make meals, arguing the bigger is not always better.
After taking questions, Waters stayed to sign copies of her books for nearly 100 people. Every person who came to the table had a moment to chat with her and take a photo if they wanted. Lina Flefel, a budding young chef, told Waters she is leaving in March to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and Waters wished her luck with her studies.
Barb Perry, an older lady, has family in California and they went to dinner at Water’s restaurant, Chez Panisse, for Christmas in 1983. Perry still has the menu from their dinner and brought it with her for Waters to sign.
Despite America’s growing obsession with fast food and convenience, Waters holds out hope that the next generation will be able to stop this trend.
“Working with kids has given me a lot of hope,” Waters said.
But she argues this movement must start at home.
“The most important thing I learned from France is eating together,” she said, recalling kids eating with their friends in cafes and families eating every meal together.
“We need to bring people back to the table and back to their senses.”