Growing up in Berkeley, I always heard Alice Waters lauded as a visionary and a genius, and her food establishments were a point of major civic pride. (Many Berkeley kids remember some version of this, I think). Chez Panisse spawned elite chefs left and right (including two of my favorites, Mary Canales at Ici and Christopher Lee at the now-defunct Eccolo) and trendy “California cuisine” types the world over claimed pedagogical descent from her and her fellow food revolutionaries. Sustainable, local, organic and fair-trade moved from counter-culture to more mainstream food philosophy, and Alice opened a string of restaurants around town that continued to embrace her “vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea” vision of what food should be.
I love this vision.
I also have a gnawing anxiety about relatively affluent people who preach about organics, backyard gardens, and locavore lifestyles. (Yes, I count myself in there sometimes). The idea that we all have equal access to ‘ideal’ foods is naive, and puts an unfair burden on people in food-deserts, both urban and rural. We sing the praises of fresh vegetables but meanwhile there is very real difference between having access to Farmer’s Markets and co-ops versus getting produce at your nearest superstore. Beyond basic food access, there is also the question of our families and their influences. The Edible Schoolyard Project, Alice Water’s brainchild and an organization I am a fan of, makes the big assumption that if we just show kids that real peaches taste amazing, it will change the way they eat. But food — how and what and why we eat — is something we absorb almost through osmosis, from our families and communities and a lifetime of eating.
This mostly-great article by Mark Bittman makes a case for “real” food being as cheap as fast food, and I appreciate that he takes a decent stab at realizing how people’s lifestyles are different. I am home with my kids and still struggle to find time to make dinner – I am in awe of people who do it after working (outside of their home) all day. Not to mention working two jobs.
Bittman is also right to call out the reality of food deserts and fast-food’s addictive qualities – and his staggering statistic that there are five fast-food restaurants for every grocery store shows us another piece of the puzzle. Who wants to drive ten miles roundtrip to buy a chicken for their kids’ dinner, only to have to come home and roast it, when on the way to that grocery-carrying superstore they pass an infinite number of staggeringly well-marketed chicken sandwiches just for kids? (By the way – some incredibly thought-provoking reading on food justice, food processing, and how it all relates to the obesity epidemic can be found in this book).
We can’t all eat organic and local all the time, even when we want to. We can’t make dinner every single night, even when we believe we should. Sometimes, we can’t even avoid food deserts, even when we grew up basically around the corner from the cradle of the food revolution.
So. I am wary of waxing poetic and getting all teary-eyed about this particular cookbook and what it has meant to me. But I will say this: since I first received it in 2007, I use it almost every day. You have heard me refer to Alice’s notes about pastry making and her scallop-cooking method, and I think about her cooking ideas in almost every meal I put together. The cookies that accompany this post are mine, but they owe a real debt of gratitude to Alice and her insistence on vegetables, on what is fresh, local, and colorful, on what tastes good.
Even in the midst of worries about food access, food justice, food elitism — I think we can still all agree that Chez Panisse was a cradle of the food revolution, and that through her very idealism and occasional disconnect Alice Waters has made an enormous contribution to the way many of us eat and cook today. So I’m excited to offer The Art of Simple Food as our giveaway cookbook this week: elitism aside, it is a keep-it-on-the-counter book for me if ever there was one.
So let’s discuss: do you too have a nagging worry about food elitism? Have you found a way to address it? Is there something you would love to see happen in terms of increasing all people’s ability to find, prepare, and eat food that is more healthy for them and/or the planet? Did you pick up any “bad” food habits from your family? Or have you ever bought produce at a Walmart, or found yourself eating an airport hotdog for lunch? How does it feel when we have limited access to nutritious fare?
As always, while we are waiting for next Sunday night’s winner, a recipe. I made carrot-cardamom pancakes last week and Kyle wasn’t sure they were blog-worthy (the boys loved them, but with them anything pancake-shaped is pretty much a sure hit). Determined to make the combination work, I made the cookies next. My dad was over for dinner, and he and Kyle ate the entire plate and then declared that “the only problem with these is you can’t stop eating them!” They have a slight toothiness to the edges and then are all soft-chew inside. They are bursting with cardamom-sweet smells, packed with carrots, and have just a touch of brown sugar. And butter? Well yes. Carrots and butter cancel each other out, didn’t you know? Enjoy :)
Alice has a recipe for butter cookies in The Art of Simple Food, and it is a good one. But I tend to prefer a more short-bread style cookie (have you noticed?) so I don’t use the eggs. I also cut way back on the sugar, and opt for brown over white. Oh, and since the carrots are moist, I omitted the milk. And … I went for 100% whole wheat flour. So, as you can see, this recipe at a glance has nothing to do with her book. But I think it captures part of her vision – use what is local, in season, organic and of course delicious. And celebrate your vegetables.
8 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cardamom (you can even go 3 teaspoons if you love it like I do!)
Pinch of salt
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 heaping cup shredded carrots
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, in a small bowl for rolling.
Preheat your oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Cream the butter and sugar (I use my stand mixer) until lightened and fluffy. Add the cardamom, and mix in well. Add the salt and flour, mix until dough forms. Add the carrots, mix until evenly distributed. (If dough seems dry or crumbly, you can add a teaspoon of water, milk or cream – my carrots were quite juicy so it wasn’t needed).
Make teaspoon-sized balls of dough, roll them in the granulated sugar, and flatten slightly on the cookie sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until barely browning on the bottom. Let cool on pan for a few minutes, then finish cooling on racks.
Makes 25-30 cookies.