Alice Waters: Still Touting Simple Food

When Alice Waters wants a salad she goes to her backyard and extracts a head of lettuce from the ground, she writes in her new cookbook, "The Art of Simple Food." She swirls each leaf in a couple of changes of cold water, spins it in small batches and blots it dry on a dish towel, whisks up a light vinaigrette, and tosses the lettuce with her hands, which is also how she eats it. (Folks, don't try this at Olive Garden. Or even at Chez Panisse, the legendary California restaurant from which Waters launched America's culinary revolution in the 1970s under the banner of "fresh, local, seasonal" food.) Not for her the poly bags of premixed, triple-washed greens that fill supermarket shelves from Maine to San Diego and from January to December. For Waters a head of lettuce that has been out of the ground for more than a day isn't a salad ingredient, it's the raw material for mulch.

Waters's new book is her ninth cookbook, and, she says, it will be her last, her culinary legacy. In the chapter on salad you can see everything people both admire about her and find infuriating: the sheer sensuous zest she brings to every aspect of food (she even claims to love washing lettuce) and the daunting zeal with which she upholds her rigorous standards. She has elevated her principles of eating to moral imperatives—which, perhaps not coincidentally, are easier to observe if your definition of "local" is centered on Berkeley, Calif., than almost anywhere else in the world. An avocado in Manhattan isn't just an expensive and possibly underripe luxury, but an agent of spiritual malaise. She bemoans how eating out-of-season, mediocre fruits and vegetables leaves one "disconnected from the seasons and the natural cycle. It's disorienting. When I go to New York I want to feel as if I'm in New York, not like I'm in a hotel that could just as well be in Houston." She is willing to make exceptions for certain products of limited geographic range, like coffee and olive oil, but she believes that with a little ingenuity and sacrifice it should be possible to greatly expand one's repertoire of fresh, local and seasonal foods. "I'm not telling you you can't have orange juice in New York," she says. "I'm saying you can't have strawberries from California. Why? Because you grow beautiful strawberries in New York. You eat them when they're in season, and you stop when the season is over." As for what should sustain those hungry millions until the bushes ripen again the following year, she recommends foraging in Central Park. "I was in New York when it was 17 degrees with a guy who was foraging," she says, "and you can't imagine what we found. Ginkgo nuts! Garlic sprouts! It's there; we just have to figure out how to cook it again. We just have to delight in it."

Waters is heartened by the way her campaign has been invigorated by the environmental movement, which is trying to reduce the carbon footprint of our salads by encouraging people to eat things that don't have to be shipped across the country. This impulse has inspired at least two books in the last few months: the best-selling "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who lived off the land in a southern Appalachian farmhouse for a year, and "Plenty," by Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon, writers who spent a year eating only what was grown within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver, B.C. From the standpoint of energy use, obviously, it would have been far more efficient for Smith and MacKinnon to just buy a sack of flour than to drive around for days looking for a wheat farmer. From the culinary point of view, the limits of local sourcing were vividly brought home to MacKinnon when he finally scored a bucket of British Columbia wheat, which had to be sorted one grain at a time to separate out the mouse droppings.

Waters, 63, still runs Chez Panisse when she's not traveling the country agitating for her causes: the "edible schoolyard" project, an effort to encourage schools to grow their own food and serve it instead of the usual lunchroom swill; and "Slow Food," which began in Italy as a protest against McYou-Know-What and is now a worldwide movement promoting the virtues of home-cooked meals of fresh, local and seasonal food. From the moment she first plopped a disk of goat cheese onto a plate of fresh, local, seasonal greens dressed with a light vinaigrette, American cooking has never been the same. Without her, as David Kamp writes in his definitive history of the food revolution, "The United States of Arugula," we might all still be eating iceberg lettuce and calling it salad. "And now," Waters told Kamp, "one of those big companies has grabbed on to the idea, and they cut up big lettuces and put 'em in a bag, mix 'em up, and call 'em mesclun. Who is it—Dole pineapple or somebody?"

Eric Schwartz is a top executive of Dole with the vaguely Orwellian title "president, worldwide vegetables." Every day Dole ships about 2 million bags of greens, in dozens of varieties and assortments, to every corner of the country from farms mostly in California and Arizona. They are triple-washed, cooled and packed in bags engineered to keep them from spoiling for as long as two weeks, in boxes with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags so they can be tracked everywhere they go, in case a recall becomes necessary. It is an irony that Waters, to whom the very idea of a "worldwide vegetable" is anathema, probably did as much as anyone to create the demand for precisely this product, the universal upscale salad of delicate young lettuce offset with crunchy endive and bitter arugula, mâche and frisée and the rest of them. It's only natural to ask Schwartz what he thinks of Waters and her lifelong campaign to bring fresh greens to the American dinner table. He stops and thinks for a second.

"That name," he says, "does not sound familiar."