If Alice Waters had written the book Eat, Pray, Love, it would have been called Eat, Teach, Grow. And it wouldn’t have been about one woman’s personal journey to self-awareness and immersion in Italian cuisine; it would have been about one woman’s mission a) to feed every child in the world and b) to foster a generation dependent on local, organic food.
She spoke to a huge crowd at Varsity Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison on March 25 and educated us on Slow Food and her ideals.
Waters is the Vice President of Slow Food International, which was founded in 1989 in a response to a growing dependence on fast food and fast food culture. Fast food culture is exactly what it sounds like: fast food is now the dominant way that people consume food. It is part of our daily lives. With the omnipresence of fast food culture comes a plethora of issues. People become accustomed with uniformity and look down on anything that deviates from the norm, from any sign of creativity. People become accustomed to speed and don’t appreciate things that take time. People lose the idea of what value is; they believe value is cheap and not that value is what something’s worth. “Things can be affordable,” Waters said. “But they don’t have to be cheap.” Finally, fast food culture doesn’t allow workers to love their job; fast food workers only have to be fast and efficient, not personable or approachable. “Fast Food culture separates work from pleasure,” Waters said. “And then it profits from that separation.”
This brings to mind something I learned in a marketing course at the University: a term called McDonaldization, coined by George Ritzer. McDonaldization is basically the same concept but using different words. It also expands on the problem of “speed.” People never feel like they have free time, and they think about all the things they have to do later in the day. They feel anxious. They feel rushed. And so instead of making a home-cooked meal, they round up the kids, drive to a fast food restaurant, and buy dinner for a family of four the “cheap” and “fast” way. The irony here is that one could easily make a simple, home-cooked meal relatively quickly compared to the amount of time it takes to drive somewhere, wait in line, order and drive back. It’s also ironic that a dinner at McDonalds for a family of four costs an average of $28, and one could make a home cooked meal for a family of four for about half that price.
“If we are what we eat, then we’re fast, cheap and easy,” Waters said, and the audience laughed.
But, back to Alice Waters and Slow Food. Slow food culture is the antidote to fast food culture, Waters said. It’s deeper, richer and more fulfilling. It’s more cultural and more connected to nature. Waters believes that all of the worlds problems- from poverty to obesity to fear of climate change- can be solved using slow food culture, whose values include richness, community, aliveness, respect and honesty. Adopting these values in your life is like falling in love, Waters said.
Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, is based off slow food values; specifically, it was based on Waters’ time in France at a time when France has a slow food culture. When making decisions about her restaurant, Waters chooses fresh food. She chooses handcrafted wooden chairs that evoke uniformity rather than mass-produced, plastic chairs that evoke conformity. This restaurant is Waters’ way to make a change in America and how Americans consume their food.
Waters is asking for a lot of change. How does she expect to get it? Children. “Think about it: 20% of our population go to school,” she said. “Imagine what would happen if we adopted a sustainable criteria for everything we buy in the school system. Not just food, but everything.” She imagines a system where every school has a garden and where kids are taught about sustainability and eating right in their curriculum. The idea was actually based off an unexpected group of people: inmates at the San Francisco County Jail. She saw how transformational it was for the inmates to grow and share their own food. “I thought if it worked for the inmate, surely it would work for the schools,” Waters said. The amazing result of this program is that the inmates missed jail after they were released- or at least that part of jail. So, many of them began growing their own gardens and selling their food at local farmers’ markets. The program changed them and inspired Alice Waters.
She believes we’re headed in the right direction, especially since a day hat was historic to her: January 6. Waters was dining with Janet Napolitano (current president of the University of California) and chancellors of the university. They talked about Waters’ ideas and goals. The result? Napolitano wrote out at University-Wide Compact for Sustainability on a dinner napkin and had everybody sign it. “I have a deep sense of hope that we are all becoming part of this delicious revolution,” Waters said. “It felt to me like I was signing the Declaration of Independence.”