Alice Waters: Still a (food) revolutionary

I had the privilege to listen  to Alice Waters a couple of weeks ago, and share in her heartfelt conviction for her cause (which really should be everybody’s priority), its been so many years since she became known as a strong, clear voice in the fight for traditional values surrounding food, eating and living in general, really! (Oh yes, and for opening Chez Panisse)

She started with a thinly veiled comment of disappointment at the just past G20 conference in Brisbane, and how climate change didn’t get the time it deserved, as well as mentioning the absolute power of  the mining industry and its devastating effect on the local agricultural industry, and it’s disregard for the environment in general. (Sadly the case with mines all over the globe – nature of the beast, really.)

Relying on notes taken hastily, this is chiefly what she talked about:

Her first big topic centered around the idea that so many of the problems we face in the world today – politically, socio-economically, environmentally et cetera could be seen as an extension of a culture we have created and have been caught up in, in what is now the accepted way of life.

Her connection with Slow Food is well known and it is easy to understand why she draws a parallel with the “Food” culture – that of Fast Food, that has slowly been destroying how we eat (and think, or don’t think about eating) and life in general. We’re not just talking food – this culture has now emerged as the new machination of life, the way of life and the way the world operates.

She speaks of a new set of values that we have come to accept as normal – values that intrinsically lead to the degradation of the human experience, and has tainted our perception of how life works, like:

Uniformity: This idea is so woven into the everyday that we hardly question it. It creates the illusion of there actually being no pressure to conform – by making uniformity ‘normal’. We now question why some products are not uniform. Which is unnatural, but we’ve forgotten that.

Speed: We have forgotten that some things take time, and instead get irritated & annoyed  when things don’t happen quickly or present instantaneously. We have essentially lost the art of practicing patience.

Availability: More annoyance and irritability that all of life’s luxuries are not accessible everywhere, all the time, in a familiar format. WIFI in the middle of a tranquil forest, why not? Think how McDonalds prides itself on the same burger from Washington to Worcester. That’s not actually cool.

Cheapness: She mentions the tagline for Coles: “Down, Down, prices are Down”, but wonders where the missing dollars have gone. We have somehow forgotten that we actually do have to pay for something to be created from scratch. We  need to realise that that the farmers are being paid less, but Coles’ profits certainly do not diminish when prices are slashed.

Work = drudgery: I found this to be a sticky point. I agree with her when she says that in fewer and fewer instances, a sense of self-accomplishment is connected to work – all everyone strives for now is getting a job, that makes enough money, to buy more stuff. (I disagree – this is a first-world affliction, but nonetheless an anomaly).

Basically we get so little pleasure out of work, that that we essentially try and do as little as possible in our required work time, which leads to why we are feeding and purporting the ‘Fast Culture’, thus strengthening it and embedding it into our being.

This culture has successfully separated work from pleasure – and now takes our money to drive both forward.

She then goes on to explain why she opened Chez Panisse in the first place. Not to make money apparently, but to of course introduce the much envied French “way of life” to America. A new, rustic & relaxed style of cooking, and one menu to drive a certain taste experience. All very successful as we know, but she then speaks of how she has observed food culture changing, now: value = more & bigger.

Now large corporations continually hijack terminology that the well-meaning food world put out there to try and advocate more conscious and healthy eaters – think natural, local, organic, Fair Trade, Free – Range, Sustainable… theses have all been corrupted to the point where no one knows who to to believe or where to access the original, correct product. All these words have been assimilated into mainstream marketing and have, essentially, become meaningless  and misleading.

There is no one who can set proper standards, and this ‘dishonesty’ has led to a complete lack of values, which now shape our behaviour. Behaviour which is rapidly starting to corrode how we evaluate how we live, how we equate happiness with value, or ward off all the modern problems that come with this ‘set of beliefs’. Her word, which is rather strong but accurate, is that we’ve become dehumanised.

In closing, she presents the antithesis to the above. The Slow Food culture and way of life, which, although always there, has been ignored and forgotten in the corner, so to speak. It has it’s own set of values :

Awareness, Honesty, Integrity, Community, Respect. Values that are earthbound.

A culture that’s naturally nurturing. She found that where the focus was on integrating these values – it didn’t really mix with the ‘Fast Food way of life’ at all, and it became clear to people how to think about how they ate, how they bought, and where they supported which institution. Even at Chez Panisse they found that customers responded to these values, but thought that it was everything else they were doing at the restaurant that created that particular feeling.

It was inspirational listening to her. This is a great idea, and clearly the way  forward.



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