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Image from Pixabay

Alice Waters' Fascinating and Infuriating Quest for Perfection

There's no better time to both envy and reexamine the legendary Chez Panisse chef's quest for an impeccable fruit bowl.
30 June 2020, 6:32am

Earlier this month, I spent 15 whole minutes watching Alice Waters talk in extraordinary detail about how to put together the perfect bowl of fruit. No chopping, no sugar, no squeeze of lemon or orange juice to try to brighten the taste of the thing—just a plain old bowl of fruit, curated to highlight whatever is perfectly in season on the particular day on which it is served, which is every day at her decades-spanning farm-to-table Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. "It's a way of being in time and place," she says.

In the video—lesson 12 of the American slow food activist and celebrity chef's course on MasterClass—the season is autumn. Today, the butcher-block island at the center of her home kitchen is covered in persimmons. She mentions that she picks them from the trees in her garden; sometimes, she says, the leaves will "become part of the fruit bowl," too. She grasps one juicy orange orb, cuts a perfect wedge, then brings it to her mouth to taste—batting her lashes at the camera as if to underscore the importance of tasting, that the taste of the fruit changes every day.

"Ooo, definitely, I want to put this on the fruit bowl," she says. Later, after placing a few persimmons and a couple curling leaves in the bowl, she glances forlornly at a bunch of plump, burgundy-colored grapes. "Even though it's a beautiful organic fruit, it doesn't look alive to me," she says. "I'll taste it just to make sure it's not worthy of the fruit bowl."

On the off-chance that quarantine-induced anxiety and incessant targeted advertising ended up convincing you that it was a good idea to shell out for a MasterClass membership this spring, you might have found the most striking thing about this sequence to be the visual aspect: Between the persimmons, pomegranates, and dates of her finished fruit bowl and the cookware on display throughout her kitchen (only wood, iron, and copper, as a rule), you've got a near-complete spectrum of the colors of fall. Or, perhaps, it was Alice Waters' voice that transfixed you: crystalline, drawling, and vaguely mid-Atlantic, like that of women whom you might imagine Kelsey Grammar meeting at the wine club on Frasier, albeit with a noticeable predilection for using the American-English version of words that food people usually say in French, like "rocket" instead of "roquette." (Alice Waters is famous for importing a distinctly French culinary sensibility and re-imagining it as the basis for a new "California cuisine," one that celebrates the links between the food you eat and the soil and the farmers that cultivated it, so this kind of makes sense.)

But for me, it was something else that made this moment indescribably absorbing at a time when I couldn't stop ruminating about lost income and how I was going to find time to clean the house. Like Frasier, which for years has been my go-to sitcom during the moments just before falling asleep, there is something charmingly sedative about these Alice Waters videos—and also absurd, in the way that the customs of coastal white liberals are always pretty ridiculous when you hold them up to scrutiny. Who besides Alice Waters, who has written entire books about fruit, has the luxury of spending a quarter-of-an-hour deciding whether a single Bosc pear proffers just the right ratio of juiciness to crispness, even in the name of her so-called "delicious revolution"? And who—especially right now—has the combined mental bandwidth and reliable produce access to think of fruit not just as something you eat, but a matter of monumental importance?

That disjunct—between the impractibly slow, organic-everything, back-to-the-land lifestyle that Alice Waters has elevated to a gospel, and the material and temporal limits of contemporary life—has made her, as one chef put it to the LA Times, "a kind of lightning rod for Berkeley liberal elitism," while also sparking dialogue about misogynist double standards in the food world, such as in the case of the famous 60 Minutes egg spoon incident. Somewhat winningly, it's a recurring theme in her daughter Fanny Singers' new memoir, Always Home, which compiles recipes from her childhood and teenage years while painting a loving but unsparing picture of what it might actually be like to grow up with Alice Waters as your mom.

alice waters egg spoon

Image via Pixabay user DarkWorkX

Though the book could be read as a 300-page tribute to her mother's unyielding passion for nature and aesthetics, the 30-something writer and curator is quick to point out the ways in which Waters' dogmatic approach could render her "disproportionately blinkered, even insensitive to the widely held belief that hers is an unachievable romantic existence." In chapter one, she tells us that the Edible Schoolyard Project, the farming and food education non-profit Waters founded in partnership with the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, was born after the "school's principal called out my mom for publicly maligning its quasi-derelict appearance." She goes on to share an anecdote that pretty perfectly illustrates the tenacity of her mother's obsession: When a preliminary edible schoolyard classroom was erected in a trailer, she was unable to tolerate the "industrial taupe of the prefab kitchen building," and reportedly dipped into her personal savings in order to have it painted aubergine.

Ultimately, though, Always Home is a book that approaches its subject with the same tenderness and curiosity with which her mother inspects the permissions. There's an entire chapter devoted to the smells she associates with her mother: woodsmoke and beeswax candles and the smell of "garlic warming but never burning on a stove"—but also, for the first 25 years of Singer's life, a "hippy drugstore formulation" of almond oil and collagen that she wore in lieu of perfume. And another dedicated to her hands: small and surprisingly soft for a chef, but with a nimbleness that Singer reads as a "mirror of her determination."

As bewitching as these images are, it can be a bit hard to relate to an author whose mother stocked home-made chicken paillard sandwiches and fruit macédoine from the garden in her lunch box and whose childhood adventures in France were turned into an actual children's book called Fanny in France. But if you spend enough time with the book, you start to understand Waters' over-the-topness both as a source of perpetual frustration for those around her and the thing that makes the world of Alice Waters so magnetic. Ultimately, Singer says, her mother's obsessive attention to the color, texture, fragrance, and an elusive ideal of "perfect ripeness" is little more than her own complicated way of expressing love: love for the person she is cooking for (in this case, Singer), and love for the world of farmers and organic vegetables and wild backyard gardens she has spent a career celebrating as both the beginning and end-point of good food. The perfectly in-season fruit bowl emerges as the logical conclusion of that philosophy, its simplicity reminding you that the natural world is the star of the show; the chef is just the person who selects the frame through which you behold it.

Since the coronavirus prompted restaurants throughout the Bay Area to put dine-in service on hold, Waters has been running a CSA subscription program straight out of Chez Panisse, furnishing customers with boxes of organic produce from local farmers suddenly unable to sell their harvest. (After protests against systemic racism erupted across the country following the killing of George Floyd, the restaurant also pledged to expand its network of suppliers to include more Black farmers and "foster relationships with more Black-owned businesses, chefs, and organizations.) She's also also been making occasional appearances in the press, encouraging people to start their own victory garden—a throwback to the World War II tradition she remembers her mother growing when she was a child, and a way to supplement one's pantry with fresh grown things at a time when quality produce can be hard to come by.

It's a sweet idea, if not the most realistic or time-efficient in a year when Americans are poised to experience record levels of food insecurity (though the Edible Schoolyard Project has demonstrated that there is some potential there, donating all its produce to families in the Berkeley area in need). And though I have had the privilege of being able to get a hold of fresh greens most weeks during quarantine—and even to indulge in preparing them according to Waters' instructions, using fresh-cut garlic and oil and a little bit of red pepper—picking at their droopy, past-prime leaves and trying to figure out of which of them are salvageable will always be a reminder of the impossibility of the Alice Waters ideal.

Still, I can't keep coming back to the thought that there is something immensely reassuring about the fruit bowl video, even as someone who is not particularly fond of fruit. On one hand, it feels completely out of step with the reality of most people's experiences; on the other, perhaps because I discovered the video when I did, it feels oddly emblematic of this protracted disruption of life-as-usual, a time when every day feels a little unreal.

Maybe doing something as ridiculously impractical as taking 15 minutes out of your day to build a bowl with the best pieces of fruit you are able to find—or pausing mid-walk to contemplate the way that the trees and the critters that populate them seem to be enjoying this moment without us—can be a way of embracing all that surrealness. And maybe if we're lucky, we'll be able find something enjoyable within it, too.