It’s 1970, Berkeley, California. Eucalyptus, rolling hills, and tear gas, which drifts like a country meadow’s morning over the bricked sidewalks of Sproul plaza. Police stand in rows of khaki and robin’s egg blue, staring down crowds of students—anti-war demonstrators; free speech and civil rights-ers, feminists, and anyone else that governor Ronald Reagan might dub party to that “mess in Berkeley.”
It’s to this backdrop that Alice Waters will open the doors of Chez Panisse, the restaurant that changed the way Americans eat and dine and talk about food, just about a mile North on Shattuck Avenue in an old house purchased rent-to-buy for $32,000. The first meal will be served for $3.95 on August 28th, 1971, when Waters is 27 years old. Earlier that same day, Waters’ partner will film the funeral of George Jackson, a member of the Black Panthers at the request of Huey Newton. “It was a reminder to us that it was a dark time,” writes Alice Waters in her new memoir, Coming to My Senses: the Making of a Counterculture Cook.
“…I was deeply disillusioned about politics, and by opening the restaurant, I really thought that I was dropping out,” she writes. “But it became political. Because as it turned out, food is the most political thing in all our lives.”
Waters—chef, sustainable agriculture proponent, and activist—is credited with the proliferation of America’s local-seasonal-organic cuisine, the slow food movement, mesclun salad, and goat cheese. She needs very little introduction to anyone who has read anything about eating—or food studies or food activism—in this country.
Now, it’s 2017. We have corporatized health food stores and turned them into lifestyle stores, the largest of which, Whole Foods, is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos is one of the richest people in the world. A dinner at Chez Panisse costs between $75 and $100, and a meal delivery kit service called Blue Apron—after the color worn by French chefs in training—contracts with over 150 farms to grow and deliver fresh, quality ingredients directly to the doors of subscribers across the country at a breakdown of roughly $10 a meal.
Just after it purchased Whole Foods, Amazon announced that it was bringing meal kits to its one-click-happy Amazon shoppers, filing a trademark on the phrase, “We do the prep. You be the chef.” In a letter screenshot-ed into a Tweet, Alice Waters addressed Bezos: “You have an unprecedented opportunity to change our food system overnight: It is time to demand that produce comes from farmers who are taking care of the land, to require meat and seafood to come from operations that are not depleting natural resources, and to support the entrepreneurial endeavors of those American farmers and food makers who do not enjoy federal subsidies.”
It’s funny that the demand for such a thing as a meal kit—that confluence of fast- and foodie nation—can be traced to Alice Waters and the movements she’s credited with founding. And if, for my mom’s generation, Waters was at the frontier of better, more democratized food, for my generation, the delivered meal kit just might be the same, conveniently boxed up with attendant politics, ready to be unpacked should I care to.
Like most Americans, according to statistics, I like to cook nice meals that I eat at home, but I don’t have the time. I am health conscious. I am budget conscious. I am conscious of the world overheating and the amount of plastic floating in the ocean. I am the privileged millennial statistic, to be blunt, even though I fall at the outer edge of that dirty-word’s demographic. Many of my friends and family members have at one time subscribed to a meal kit service like (if not actually) Blue Apron. Having grown up in Californiaaround people who meat-shamed kids, never used non-recyclable containers, and considered fast food evil, hearing that some of these same people were allowing a tech startup from New Jersey to send them food in tiny plastic bags was as startling as when my mom told me she regularly watched a TV show.
There are many, many meal kit companies out there:
Hello Fresh, Plated, Homechef, PeachDish, Greenchef, Hungry Root, Purple Carrot, and on and on. Though they’ve each claimed an angle, the general concept is the same: You subscribe and, every week (or twice a week), a meal’s ingredients arrive at your door, in a box, with a recipe card (or online video tutorial). There’s no grocery shopping required and meal prep generally takes about 30 minutes.
All Alice Waters wanted was to build a "nice little French restaurant," and look how that seemingly self-indulgent, apolitical action turned out.
In this new universe of meal kits (that launched almost simultaneously), it’s Blue Apron that has become the most ubiquitous. Why? Advertising, mostly. They had banners in subway cars and ads on social media and endless free meals and trials for subscribers to give to friends. But Blue Apron is also widely acceptable to a lot of people. Its message of sustainability, its relationships with farms, and its menu based on their farmers’ ingredients give it credibility for shoppers like me. Blue Apron also easily appeals to a new “foodie,” someone who wants cooking help without sophistry or diet advice, or just can’t be bothered to pay seven dollars for a jar of palm sugar used in one date-night curry.
Matt Wadiak, one of Blue Apron’s three founders (and former COO), cites Alice Waters as one of his inspirations. Wadiak is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and worked at Oliveto, a restaurant in Oakland whose former chef, Paul Bertolli, was once the executive chef at Chez Panisse and coauthored Chez Panisse Cooking, with Alice Waters. Wadiak is an advocate of sustainable growing practices—the importance of regenerating soil; and the importance of closing the knowledge gap between real consumer demand and the crops farmers are paid to grow. When Wadiak joined with Blue Apron’s other founders, Matt Salzberg and Ilia Papas, he insisted on a name change—Blue Apron.
Of the meal kit sites I scoured, Blue Apron’s felt the most overtly mission-driven. Under the “vision” tab is a briefing on the food system and how Blue Apron’s model works outside of it. By contracting with farms, employing an agroecologist to help farmers develop crops grown just for Blue Apron’s recipes, the company’s mission theorizes that waste is reduced, consumers pay a price that reflects the actual product and labor, and that, by sourcing crops and rotations that make sense to individual farms, they help promote the health of soil. “Through the power of technology, we can integrate our food supply chain to connect demand and supply, and eliminate economic and food waste,” Wadiak told Foodtank in 2016. “Through these models, growers have a better understanding of how to get their produce to consumers faster and fresher.”
I was totally on board to pay my vote for this experiment. Yet, when I hit submit on my first Blue Apron delivery, I felt a rush of embarrassment, imagining my neighbors seeing the box at my door. I wanted to tell them, “It’s research! I like to cook! I know how to shop!”
On the phone with my mom, who had used Purple Carrot and thought it was pretty cool, I talked through my wariness, reaching the conclusion that, besides the packaging and perceived infantilization of having someone (something?) choose my dinner, I had no real objections. Because, in reality, I never research the source of my chickpeas or greens at the grocery store, and only occasionally do I pay attention to the farmer’s origin story when I shop the greenmarkets. And I don’t really know how my food is transported or when it’s picked or how it’s grown or the amount of money the farmer gets when I buy almond butter for $10 (though I do know it takes too much water and that I should not be buying almonds at all).
So, trying a low-waste, high-quality, reasonably affordable meal plan whose ingredients have been considered for me? Sure. As my mom said, “If it keeps people in their kitchens, thinking about their food rather than at McDonald’s, seems like a pretty good thing.”
Besides, all Alice Waters wanted was to build a nice “little French restaurant” where she could make meals for her friends without going broke doing it for them at home, and look how that seemingly self-indulgent, apolitical action turned out.
Alice Waters did not like the food served at her cafeteria. Instead of eating school lunch, she would often go home, where her mother would make sandwiches. Her favorite was a grilled cheese with a pickle on the side. “I’ve always loved cheese,” she writes.
Coming to My Senses, Waters’ long-awaited memoir, does what a long-awaited memoir should—it starts when her memories do, and it recalls them in language that sounds very much like her spoken one—breathy, flighty in a how-do-you-solve-a-problem-like-Maria kind of way––the things that add up to a person considered a cultural icon.
Pat and Marge Waters raised their four daughters in New Jersey. They were lower middle class, good people whose opposing politics were a focal point in the lives of their girls. Marge was on the political left, and Pat was on the right. But in the middle was their Victory garden, planted in service of Roosevelt’s America, as were its values—thoughtful frugality, self-sufficiency, beauty. “This was what my mother liked: She liked sitting out in the sun in the garden—she loved the flowers and vegetables we grew, and she enjoyed gardening … I always thought of my mother as a radical, I did.”
The book moves chronologically through Waters’ school days, her teenage partying, the relocation of her family to Michigan, then to California, following her father’s work. We see Waters through various romances though no dramas are ever indulged, and, similarly, no sordid industry gossip is revealed or even acknowledged. The book’s emphasis is on the friends, family, and culture that imprinted on Waters—the aunt who “created beauty wherever she went”; the French friends who knew how to choose flowers and antique tablecloths, and how to light a room; the movie critic, Tom whom Waters’ falls in love with; and Tom’s coven of intellectuals.
Waters’ trips to France are rich with food descriptions—“cured ham and melon, whole trout with slivered almonds in browned butter, and a raspberry tart.” Then, after having lived in England for Montessori teacher training, she returns to Berkeley where she starts a newspaper column, “Alice’s Kitchen” that highlights one recipe a week. Eventually she lands on the idea of starting a little restaurant for her friends to share a meal, to be named for a character in one of the Marcel Pagnol films Waters saw with Tom.
Throughout the book, we’re taken off on various asides, as Waters is reminded of things seemingly mid-thought: a favorite recipe (“‘Go get some figs in August, put them on a plate, and eat them’,” from chef Alain Ducasse), her favorite herb (garlic), or the time she was asked to cook a dish alongside Julia Child(she makes a salad).
Transferring to UC Berkeley in 1964 is what locks Waters’ venn diagram of character and pursuit in place. She started working on the campaign for Bob Scheer, a journalist who ran as an anti-war senatorial candidate. She was there when Mario Savio, a senior at Berkeley then and a member of CORE—Congress of Racial Equality—jumped on the hood of a police car and delivered a now famous speech, calling for a stop to the “machine” of war. “We didn’t just think we could stop the war—we thought we could create an entirely new sort of society,” writes Waters. “…my parents had taught me certain basic values: morality, empathy, frugality, love of nature, love of children. … Those were the values adopted by the counterculture—because, sadly, they had been forgotten by the culture at large.”
The book closes after the first meal is served at Chez Panisse, with Waters’ addressing her intention to drop out of politics by opening the restaurant, having become disillusioned, only to discover that what she’d done by serving simple, good food was considered radical.
Waters has plenty of detractors. Aside from reports of fissures between her Chez Panisse chefs and compatriots, she’s been called idealistic and classist (and “arrogant, self-righteous, and out of touch”). Who can afford to eat only organic, only local? Who has time to consider absolutely every food source? And then cook. To these sorts of questions she has replied, “We make decisions every day about what we’re gonna eat. And some people want to buy Nike shoes, two pairs.”
More importantly, that a choice between designer shoes and quality food has to be made at all is part of the problem Waters has worked hard to communicate, and to change, even if the way she’s gone about it isn’t to everyone’s taste. “Her contribution has been way too easy to underestimate, but underestimating it is a big mistake,” said Marion Nestle—professor of nutrition, foods studies, and public health at NYU to CNN in 2016.
A quick look at American history shows that how we eat is the product of marketing and politicking. We produce more calories than we need (roughly 4,000 per person, per day) and have for a long time. Burgers are cheap because they make more money for certain people (lobbyists and corporations) at the cost of others (farmers; the environment). According to the same study, “Just 17 cents of every dollar spent on food in 2014 went back to the farm.” “We think about fast food being a national diet because of all that we’ve read and all that we see,” Waters told Ruth Reichl at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2014. “But it’s really so much more than that. It’s a culture of fast food.”
Then there’s the cost of the excess. About half of all produce in the U.S. is thrown away each year. We have too much food, we only want to see pretty produce in stores, food spoils in transit, in the grocery bins, and in our crispers. The waves of politics and trends and lobbying and laws that go into this current mire of mealtime values requires careful study to unpack and significant lifestyle changes to buck.
Which is how we’ve ended up facing down a cardboard box filled with smaller boxes and bottles and baggies whose mirrored branding and language feels lifted straight from the counterculture:
Our chefs and farmers work together: To make food more sustainable and recipes more delicious…Blue Apron's uniquely integrated model means better ingredients, better pricing and a better planet for us all….”
I’m not the best test audience for a paint-by-numbers meal. I don’t like being told what to do, and I don’t like following recipes. But the exercise of forced cheffing did something surprising: It made me consider mealtime as an event around which to structure a regular day, something that was oddly not normal for me or any of my workaholic friends. As I sorted the pre-chopped herbs, I felt nostalgia well up and release like a perfume: a honey-I’m-home adulthood I once expected to grow into—square plates, homemade pasta with pesto, white wine, stonewashed chinos, candlelight. As I cooked, I considered the aesthetics of my apartment and listened to music. The meal itself was good—maybe a little salty for my taste, definitely too saucy, but good.
Something, though, felt strikingly absent. Where was the revolutionary zeal, the narrative of advocacy and hope I assumed would be broadcast to my kitchen along with the produce? Where was the note about how far the ginger traveled to get to me or how much less food I was wasting by eating a smaller portion? Even just a token paper-stock that, when planted, turned into a flower. It wasn’t there.
Would an anthropologist a thousand years from now be able to tell the difference between a pile of Blue Apron wrappers and a Happy Meal?
Instead, the pristine produce (I’d never seen a whiter garlic or a more undamaged sprig of mint) wrapped in plastic adorned only with dancing Blue Apron icons put in relief something like the opposite: What I had purchased were radical ideals cleverly co-opted by a sleek tech brand whose algorithms had digested an intersection of demand and need and returned a sellable product, not insidious but certainly calculated. The life had gone out of it.
“The reviews on meal kits are decidedly mixed. Some people love them and think they are a great way to learn how to cook. Others think they are an absurd waste of resources, environmentally wasteful, and expensive training wheels,” Marion Nestle told me in an email after I’d presented my hand-wringing over whether meal kits were some kind of slick deus ex machina for food systems or just a new wolf in sheep’s clothing, another race to the bottom line. “I really don’t have much to say about this,” she wrote. “They are not my style of cooking—way too complicated and fussy—but the meals taste good and may be useful for people who don’t know how to cook but want to prepare family meals. The problems they present are strictly First-World.”
I canceled my Blue Apron subscription after two orders. The list of reasons for canceling were presented on a web page that I had to request via email. The first option for why I was canceling asked if the meal had “Too much packaging.” Well, yes, that was one part of it—would an anthropologist a thousand years from now be able to tell the difference between a pile of Blue Apron wrappers and a Happy Meal?
Probably not. But the real reason was that, as someone who already has access to well-sourced, quality food, investing in the kit did feel decidedly First-World privilege and not revolutionary at all.
The language that companies like Blue Apron use to sell their products suggests that meal kits offer a solution to our food system’s many problems. And I was briefly carried away, transported by the idea that I could skip the work of a consumer, skip the research of ingredient source, even skip interrogating the motives of a company vying for real money in a big marketplace. I wanted it to be possible to drop in to politics by eating a good meal, something made possible to a generation when Waters chose food as her platform. It was my own fault of course, that what I’d wanted in that box was a shortcut to shouldering the challenges of Alice Waters’ counterculture, rather than the basic convenience it offered.
BY GENEVIEVE WALKER
SEPTEMBER 7, 2017
Image Source: You Tube | The Mother of Slow Food | CBS
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