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Go Ask Alice To Taker Her Arugula And Shove It (Say Critics)

Illustration for article titled Go Ask Alice To Taker Her Arugula And Shove It (Say Critics)

Today on the HuffPo, Victoria Namkung tells everybody to leave poor Alice Waters alone!


The premise of the article is that Alice Waters, the Queen of Green and the earth mother of the food revolution, is experiencing an unfair backlash. But, says Namkung, she doesn't deserve it, because the good she's done outweighs any sanctimony.

The hard words comes as a result of Waters' recent appearance on 60 Minutes, in which her passion for organics for all brought tears to her eyes. She's been vocal, lately, too, in her support of an organic garden at the White House - calls which have been heeded. In response, apparently Anthony Bourdain said, in an interview with DCist,

Alice Waters annoys the living s%#* out of me. We're all in the middle of a recession, like we're all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic. I mean I'm not crazy about our obsession with corn or ethanol and all that, but I'm a little uncomfortable with legislating good eating habits.


In response, NPR (et tu, NPR?!) critic Todd Kliman was emboldened to denounce Waters' movement as somewhat intransigent: "Waters, like a lot of radicals, believes the movement will never end. She simply can't see that the revolution she helped lead has calcified into something doctrinaire and even repressive, not liberating and uplifting." The only other critic I could find (by searching "Alic Waters, smug" and "Alice Waters, annoying"), a food blogger, explained his aversion thusly: "I've been unsympathetic to Alice Waters in the past, if only for her California sanctimony, and the effortless, tendentious ease with which she conflates her own fame with the cause of sustainable food."

While this hardly constitutes a full-scale denunciation - Bourdain's in the business of stirring the pot with iconoclastic fervor, after all - it's also true that such criticism would have been unthinkable a few years ago. To criticize Alice Waters, after all, is tantamount to criticizing puppies; what's not to like about organic food, small farms, good nutrition for children? As Victoria Namkun avers, the food revolution would not have happened without Waters. And the increasing availability of affordable organics can be laid directly at her door. The charge brought against her is generally an oblivious elitism that displays a lack of knowledge of the real priorities and opportunities of everyday people. And it's true both that Waters lives in a mecca of the movement she spawned and that her acolytes are not, as a rule, impoverished: to the extent that "good eating" has acquired the taint of moral superiority, the movement is indeed problematic. But can Waters be blamed for this?

In a sense, Waters seems to be falling prey to the pitfalls of any radical who is around long enough. She's damned for a single-minded commitment that now seems simplistic; at the same time she's criticized for an elitist complacency. On the one hand, some of the criticism is surely contrarian, pure and simple: Waters is one of the few sacred cows we have left to us (an organic one, to be sure), and as one with a particularly earnest and rabid fan base, probably an irresistible target for troublemakers. There are those amongst us who can't tolerate the existence of bedroom saints, and maybe they're right. I'd regard Waters' recent challenging not as problematic but as necessary and important; even a sign of her importance. She created a movement, and like a culinary Dorothy Day, she's stayed true to its principles. This is, perhaps, as it should be, and what she should be revered for; it's also what needs to be challenged, discussed, analyzed, evolved, rethought if necessary. What's the point of founding a philosophy if it doesn't spawn new ideas? So where Namkung says "give Waters a break"; I say she can take it.

Let's Give Alice Waters a Break [Huffington Post]
Alice Waters Was a Foodie Hero. Now She's the Food Police. [NPR]
Alice Waters Finds Someone Even More Annoying in Lesley Stahl [The Feedbag]
Chewing the Fat: No Reservations' Anthony Bourdain [DCist]

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My main issue with Alice Waters is with her seeming inability to recognize how much food, food education and food production can only be effective when they are egalitarian. It's very easy to insist that everyone should eat organic food — it's been empirically proven that food grown without pesticides carries less risk of allergic reaction (to said pesticides), that food from the ground and the trees are better for you, more nutruitious, and that processed foods with long shelf-lives are, truly, barely recognizable as food.

But, at the same time, insistance upon organic above all else — above local, above small-farmer, above independent production — immediately alienates well over half the American population. The crusade to get Americans to eat all organic all the time is noble, but unrealistic without major shifts in our agricultural industries. It means we must depend less on shipping produce (organic foods do not have the chemical hardiness of some of the genetically manipulated seed breeds, nor have they built up a "tolerance" due to pesticides, and can sometimes not handle being shipped far very well), which means we need to depend less on large-scale farming, which means we need to reinvest in independently owned farms in our own areas in order to create even the foundation of a food culture in which buying local seasonal food is acceptable and the norm — from there you have a stepping stone to buying local organic produce, with government subsidy incentives being offered for farmers who will grow 100% locally, etc. I think organic must go hand-in-hand with local to make any difference at all (in our health, in our farming practices, in our planet, in our habits) and I don't think Alice Waters really cares about that. She's so involved in her preaching that she forgets about aiding in the establsihment of the fundamentals.