I’m hesitant to step in the middle of any debate over Alice Waters’ contributions to food policy. But suffice it to say that, as she moves more and more aggressively into politics, she is taking some hits. Ezra Klein sums up the Alice Waters paradox this way:
Good food — the sort Waters features at her restaurant — is considered a luxury of the rich rather than a social justice issue. As Waters frequently argues, no one is worse served by our current food policy than a low-income family using food stamps to purchase rotted produce at the marked-up convenience store. Her vision is classically populist: It democratizes the concrete advantages — health, pleasure, nutrition — that our current food system gives mainly to the wealthy. But her language is suffused with the values and the symbols of, well, the sort of people who already eat at Waters’ restaurant. Thus, in promoting an agenda that benefits poor people with little access to fresh food, Waters tends to communicate mainly with rich people interested in fine dining.
She’s been fighting the elitist tag for some time — as well as a reputation for being a bit, well, overbearing. According to a recent article in Gourmet, she overwhelmed even former President Clinton years ago with her passion over a White House vegetable garden. After receiving a letter from the Clintons suggesting that a front-lawn vegetable garden wasn’t in keeping with the formal landscaping of the White House, Waters couldn’t restrain herself:
[S]he fired off another letter. Apologizing for “being so insistent,” she begged to differ, reminding him that “L’Enfant’s original plan for the capital city was inspired by the layout of Versailles, and at Versailles the royal kitchen garden is itself a national monument: historically accurate, productive, and breathtakingly beautiful throughout the year.”
It was the end of their correspondence.
Ouch. And the Obamas, while unfailingly polite in person, have so far resisted Waters’ attempts to be pulled into their circle of informal advisors. Having nothing to do with Waters, it’s well-known that hobnobbing with aesthetes can be dangerous to your electoral prospects and the fact remains that Waters is, at heart, just that.
Waters’ current tribulations may thus be a result of the fact that, aside from her abundant gifts as a chef, she seems to have an ample ability to rub people the wrong way. The same qualities that contributed to her success in the professional kitchen — her rigorousness, her passion, her attention to detail, her unwillingness to suffer fools gladly — are clearly not serving her well at the moment.
That’s a shame. Because her contributions are significant — from her approach at Chez Panisse, to her pioneering school garden projects known as the Edible Schoolyard, to her partial responsibility for turning an empty lot that was once in the shadow of a freeway into one of the country’s greatest open-air local Farmers’ Markets — and threaten to be drowned out by her detractors. Even her work to improve school lunches, dismissed by some as too expensive and elitist, are finding echoes in statements by USDA chief Tom Vilsack, who intends to use the National School Lunch and Food Stamps programs as a means to get Americans to eat more fresh and locally-sourced fruit and vegetables.
Anthony Bourdain recently suggested that “there’s something very Khmer Rouge” about Waters’ approach to food. While that is a fair analogy for the atmosphere in any high-end restaurant kitchen, even presumably Anthony Bourdain’s, it’s not actually a fair description of Waters’ take on policy. She does not, as Bourdain speculates, want to “to send out special squads to close all the McDonald’s.”
The simple fact is that she “annoys the living sh*t out of” Bourdain. Sadly, he does not appear to be alone. And this becomes an issue for food policy generally to the extent that the message gets entangled with the messenger. If nothing else, the contentious role Waters continues to play makes clear that the progressive food movement is a work in progress and that its “leadership” is very much up for grabs.