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Eating with Alice Waters changed my life, here’s why

Your life lessons might look a little different from mine. But I venture that we could sit down at a kitchen table and find that parts of our paths look just the same. Like me, you learned from people who navigated life before you and then took the time to tell you how they did it. For me, those guides were eight particular women. And their kitchens were my classrooms. One of those women is Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse.

The buildup to dinner at Chez Panisse is huge. But unless one is prepared, the first time can be underwhelming. You sit down to a few nuts and a little aperitif, move into a plate of raw halibut and then a pile of greens, pork and shelling beans. The meal ends with a little dish of peach ice milk and the bill is $95 before the tax, drinks and the automatic 18 percent gratuity. For some people, the only reasonable response is, “What the hell?”

In a way, my first meal there reminded me of when I was five and my mother brought my little brother, Kris, home from the hospital. For three days, ever since I’d woken up and seen my parents’ empty bed, I sat by the window, crazy with excitement over what promised to be the cutest baby I could ever imagine. My mother swooped in, a Russian-style fur hat on her head to protect against the damp gray of a Michigan January, and a bundle in her arms. She set it carefully on the bed and peeled back the blanket. There was my little brother, wrinkled, scaly, red and crying. Disgusting. I turned and left the room.

Eating that first meal at Chez Panisse was not quite that disappointing, but it was in the same emotional family. Just as I didn’t yet understand why a baby was magic or how cool my brother was going to end up being, I didn’t know enough about Alice’s food and what it took to appreciate it. The more you know about where the food comes from, the greater the pleasure. It takes patience and dedication, two things I had never been very good at.

Before I landed in San Francisco, I relied, like most people, on culinary pyrotechnics or nostalgia-inducing home-style recipes or simple salt and sugar to get pleasure from a meal. But eventually, over meals at Alice’s and other restaurants like hers, my expectation of what food could be was lifted. When I ate one of those soft, dark Black Sphinx dates Alice is so fond of and peeled a little pixie tangerine from the Ojai Valley, its perfume exactly what you might think sunshine smelled like, my brain adjusted itself. There is a purity of flavor, a truth, to the food at Chez Panisse.

In the decade that followed my first meal at Chez Panisse, Alice became a good source and a friend of sorts. That’s never an easy mix in journalism, but you can’t be a decent food journalist and not have her on your source list, and after so many years you develop a relationship. We have shared a handful of meals, one of which was in a peach orchard and ended with each of one hundred guests getting one perfect, whole Cal Red peach served naked on a plate. We have conducted dozens of interviews and had dozens of other gossipy, informal conversations. Sometimes she drives me crazy with her wispy, dreamy dramatics.

“Well, Kim, my dear,” she might say. “We just must get Obama to understand the pleasures of the table.”

Or this.

“When I see what children are eating, well, I just want to cry.”

But usually, she articulates such a sense of hope and inspiration that I hang up the phone absolutely convinced I need to completely change the way I live. The girl who made a big bowl of California onion dip and sometimes snuck out for a Jack in the Box taco must be stopped. (My commitment never lasts long, though.) Still, Alice does have an effect. How could she not? She can be the most maddening person to talk to, and the most enlightening. Once I asked her if she really thought changing the way we feed children at school was possible. Alice didn’t blink. In her world, the answer was obvious, simple and completely achievable: “We need a total dispensation from the president of the United States who will say, ‘We need a curriculum in the public school system that teaches our kids, from the time they are very little, about food and where food comes from. And we want to buy food from local people in every community to rebuild the agriculture.’”

On one hand you think: Yeah, right. And they’re going to melt down all the cruise missiles and turn them into wood-burning pizza ovens for every elementary school, too. Still, somewhere in the back of your mind, you realize that is exactly what needs to happen. But, I counter, is the government responsible for that?

“I don’t think we can consider lunch outside of the domain of public responsibility. Even the most temporary shortfall in nutrition has profound implications in a child’s ability to learn.”

This is Alice Waters, the woman who has not sold out, who has not started a Chez Panisse Las Vegas or sold a special line of mortar and pestles or cloche hats. Who has endured lots of love affairs, both fruitful and humiliating, who believes that if she just writes the right kind of personal note she can finally get an organic garden planted on the lawn of the White House. (And she did. Michelle Obama dug one up a few months after her husband took office. She didn’t credit Alice directly, but I promise you the garden is there in good part because of her.) Even when people mock her wispy ways and roll their eyes at her unblinking, idealistic beliefs and grumble that she always claims the credit, she gets hurt, but she doesn’t stop. She remains the most ridiculously uncompromising, true-blue person I have ever met in the food world. And over the years, she has come to show me that an unwavering hand on the rudder, coupled with patience, can change things. No matter what anyone says.

Simply having Alice Waters come to your house is enough to keep you up at night. It’s like the time your parents invited your second-grade teacher over for dinner. You suddenly see everything through her eyes. And I immediately thought, I live in a dump. I worried about the Diet Pepsi in the refrigerator; the package of Lipton onion soup mix in the cupboard and whether the three kinds of olive oil I had would be good enough. (Not to worry. She brought her own.) The other factor was Katia.

Katia was going to have lunch with us that day, mostly to keep me from freaking out. I should mention two other things about Katia here. One, she was four months pregnant with our daughter, Samantha, at the time and was eating like a linebacker. (Artificial insemination, if you were wondering.) And two, she’s got a touch of hypoglycemia, which means she has to have a good hit of protein in her stomach every few hours. So when I say, “Is it okay if we make one quick stop so I can check out this kebab place?” she will invariably say yes. This is a food writer’s dream partner.

She had asked only one thing of me as I headed out the door that morning. “Just make sure you call before you get in the cab to come here, OK?”

“Sure,” I said. “See you around noon.”

Did I remember to call? No. By the time we had gotten through the market, filmed the segments, endured the Alice worshippers and packed into the trunk of a cab several bags filled with hyssop and thyme and basil and runner beans and tomatoes and eggs and peaches and golden raspberries, I forgot that one detail. I made it through the two front doors in our building and eased open the one to our apartment.

“Katia, honey, we’re here!”

No response. She must be getting dressed, I thought. The muggy day was hovering around 85 degrees. We were all parched and I wanted to get something cool to drink in Alice’s hand quickly. I figured we’d unload our haul on the dining room table, and while Alice was sorting through it I could go back to the kitchen and tell Katia we were ready for drinks. Then I’d head back and help everyone get settled. We set our bags down and Alice requested the loveliest platters I had to display it all. I pulled some from the dining room shelves and then went back to find Katia. I smelled something cooking and looked in the toaster oven. Sizzling along nicely were a half dozen chicken nuggets and some frozen French fries. OK, at least the nuggets were Bell & Evans, the most natural version you can buy. The French fries were organic, too. We had purchased them both at the Brooklyn food co-op where we worked every month. But it didn’t matter. Alice Waters was in my house and chicken nuggets were cooking in my toaster oven. I heard something in the bathroom and threw open the door. Katia was standing in the tub, dripping wet.

“What are you doing?” I hissed.

“Why didn’t you call?” she spit back, her eyes blazing.

It was like the married lesbian version of Lucy and Ethel having lunch, and Alice Waters was our Bill Holden. Katia figured we would be preparing something with no meat, and she was right. Aioli, boiled eggs and vegetables were the centerpiece. She needed protein, and she was pregnant, so she indulged one of her pregnancy cravings. She figured she’d take a quick bath, down a nugget or two and be good to go when I called to say we were heading back from the market. Except I had forgotten to call. We jumped into action. She threw on a robe, whipped out of the bathroom and headed to the kitchen, leaving little puddles of bathwater on the hallway tile. She pulled the offending items from the toaster oven and snuck into the bedroom to choke a few down and get dressed. I grabbed some glasses and a pitcher of ice water and went back to the front of the house to stall. Alice was sitting at the table, looking at all she had purchased and talking on the phone to her daughter, Fanny.

“Oh, it’s so lovely,” she was saying. “We have the most beautiful tomatoes, and peaches, these tiny lovely peaches: ”

Saved by the beautiful produce once again. Alice went on to work hard for two straight hours in my little kitchen, making us a beautiful lunch. We pitched in as directed, creating this menu:

Eggs, soft-boiled for about six minutes, their yolks just barely holding together. Three kinds of beans, including a little pile of fresh shell beans she simmered in salted water with some thyme. Small, soft summer potatoes and artichokes. A glimmering bowl of olive green aioli made by hand. Thick slices of miche toasted in the toaster oven, which had already gotten plenty of use that day. Sliced peaches, nectarines, red raspberries, strawberries and blueberries covered in a little chilled syrup made from boiled golden raspberries.

A friend she had brought along for her own moral and physical support moved the picnic table in our backyard across the bluestone and out of the sun. Eric Asimov, the great Times wine writer whose desk is behind mine at the paper, had given me a bottle of French Viogner, which I poured for them. I sat back, ate, and I was happy. At that moment, I saw that the life I was starting to have was the life I wanted. I hadn’t given up. I had been patient. Just as it had with Alice over so many years, perseverance was starting to pay off.

This is a version of the aioli Alice made for us that day at my house. Like all good things, it takes a little patience and a little persistence. But it’s worth it.

Go to Family Kitchen for Alice’s aioli recipe.

Excerpted, with permission, from Spoon Fed (Riverhead, 2010), by Kim Severson.

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