Author and chef Alice Waters signing books for young fans at Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C.
By Deanna Mudry
Alice Waters was 19 when she had her first oyster.
This first taste marked the beginning of an ongoing love affair between her and France. As a student there in the 1960s, the joy she found in eating local food from neighborhood markets lead her to become a chef and one of the first public champions for buying local, organic produce.
“I never went to class, but I absolutely digested French cultural history through food,” Waters said at a Politics and Prose event Saturday. “I had an awakening. I’d never eaten a baguette like that, I’d never sat at a table that was set in such a beautiful way. There are so many things that I learned from the French.”
Waters said she wrote her latest book “Fanny in France: Travel Adventures of a Chef’s Daughter, with Recipes” as a love letter to the country. The book tells “mostly-true” tales of her daughter Fanny’s childhood in France as a chef’s daughter in the 1980s and 90s. It also includes 40 simple French recipes.
Waters said she likes writing for children because the kids can enjoy the stories while parents become what she calls “edibly educated.”
“My ulterior motive was to get to the parents through the kids, or that the kids fall so much in love with the stories that they would remember them for their whole lives,” Waters said.
During her many return trips to France after that first bite, Waters not only learned authentic French cooking, but the art of bringing children and parents together through food. She said she wants to pass it on through her book.
“The most important thing that I really learned from France was eating together,” Waters said. “They ate together all of the time. Every single night they either ate with their friends in little restaurants, they ate with their families, they ate with their kids and we in this country have lost that.”
Waters used the small French restaurants she had enjoyed as a model for her famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California that launched her career as a chef and author of over a dozen cookbooks, including “Fanny in France” and its predecessor “Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child’s Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes.”
Writing children’s books isn’t the only way Waters has brought her food philosophy to younger generations.
She founded the Edible Schoolyard Project in 1996 which teaches students how food is grown, cooked and consumed in their own school. The project gives schools curricula based in other subjects, such as history, and connects them back to the foods students harvest in the school garden and serve to each other in the cafeteria. 5,500 schools worldwide currently participate.
“If we don’t take food out of the fast-food cafeteria and give it time and attention and focus on the cultural, nutritious foods of the world, I think we will never truly be edibly educated,” Waters said. “We have so much to learn.”
Waters said that all schools should provide free lunches, as long as they’re all-organic. She also said that lunchtime should be treated as any other school subject.
“We should take that lunch hour — which is only twenty minutes right now — but apply academic minutes to it,” Waters said. “When you do that you could make it a class. Maybe [there’s] a placemat about the civilizations of the Americas, it might be a language class, and you have all the foods listed there. You’re eating a tortilla soup and a jicama salad while you’re digesting the lesson and maybe even speaking in Spanish.”
The project began at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Waters’ hometown of Berkeley, where there are 1,100 students, among whom 22 languages are spoken at home, according to Waters.
Waters said that it’s great to work with diverse children from so many different backgrounds through the Edible Schoolyard Project. She said she’s optimistic about what the students will do with what they’ve learned.
“All the kids who do the Edible Schoolyard when they graduate in eighth grade, I feel like they could give a TED Talk,” Waters said. “I don’t know what they will do, but they are very aware, they know what sustainability is, they know how they want to live their lives and [are], I would like to say, deeply political. I’m hopeful in that.”
Waters said she never set out campaign for organic, local eating after her French awakening. But it was her promotion of all-natural produce in the 1990s that helped the organic food movement gain the traction it has today.
One man at the Washington “Fanny In France” signing stood up to thank Waters for her early campaigning for good, organic produce. He told the crowd that in the early 1990s, the Glover Park Whole Foods hosted a tour of their produce section led by Waters and he was the only one who had showed up. Waters said she remembered their tour and thanked him for coming. Today, the organic grocery chain has expanded across the United States and Waters’ book talk Saturday was standing-room only.
Waters said she originally got interested in organic, local produce because she was looking for taste.
“I had lived in Paris for a year and was a gastronome. I was thinking of things entirely differently, so I was looking for taste all the time that I couldn’t find until I found the organic farmers,” she said.
Now, Waters said the most pressing issue is bringing families back to the dining room. 85 percent of the children in the United States don’t have one meal a day with their families, according to Waters, and she hopes her book and the Edible Schoolyard Project can change that.
“We have to bring people back to the table and back to their senses,” she said.
Alice Waters, Jan. 28, 2017, Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC.