DLS Presents Alice Waters

DSC02373Last night I went to see Alice Waters speak as part of UW’s Distinguished Lecture Series. I was surprised and pleased to find myself surrounded by hundreds of other people who seemed to prefer the lecture over watching the big Badger basketball game. Alice Waters seemed surprised, too.

Alice waters is known as the mother of the farm to table movement. She is the owner of Chez Panisse, the famous restaurant in Berkley, California that pioneered the locally grown, organic food movement. She’s a chef, author, food activist, and vice president of Slow Food International.

Waters recounted the incredible meals she enjoyed in Madison during the day. I was especially pleased that she gave students from Slow Food UW accolades for a delicious dinner they had prepared for her that evening. People say it all the time, that Madison is the Berkley of the Midwest. It really is, said Waters. She also gave props to Madison’s farmers’ market, which is known as the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the United States. While she is pleased with the growth of the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market in San Francisco, we don’t have 300 vendors like you do!

Waters then launched into her prepared remarks, opening with a quote from Gloria Steinem: public education is our last truly democratic institution. She then built a case for how all of the issues in our lives are an outgrowth of one bigger thing—a deeper, systemic problem: our fast food nation. Waters explained how it dominates the way people eat in this country, and it’s not only bad food, it also affects our culture, behaviors, expressions, work, architecture, politics, and the way we interact with each other (or don’t). Fast food nation degrades our human experience and produces uniformity—everyone is the same everywhere.

Waters also talked about how our expectations are warped—we want things now. But the best things in life take time. Like cooking, learning, getting to know someone. Furthermore, she talked about how we have a very twisted idea of availability—you can buy a tomato in the middle of winter in Switzerland, or a papaya in the Midwest. Seasons stop mattering. The local culture, and what’s happening here, becomes devalued.

One of her biggest pet peeves, she shared, is the the confusion between affordability and cheapness. A discounted price is artificial—there is a cost somewhere, whether it be our health, livestock, the environment, human rights, international relations, etc. Things can be affordable, but they can never be cheap. The deals cost us so much more.

Waters also talked about words that have become elusive—like organic, local, natural, fair trade, and fresh. They’ve been used and misused. What do these words really mean anymore? Words that once had meaning have been highjacked and used for presentation and marketing. She used the example of how you can feed cattle grass for two weeks and call them “grass fed.”

Underneath every problem, we have fast food culture, Waters summarized. She recounted a bumper sticker she had seen a while back: If we are what we eat, I’m fast, cheap and easy.

So if that’s fast food nation, then slow food culture is the complete opposite. Waters painted the picture of how slow food is richer, deeper. It’s not flashy. It’s involves customs, it’s connected to nature, and it’s traditional. Slow food has it’s own set of values like ripeness, integrity, community, friendship, and honesty. It’s enduring, enriching, and joyful. Pleasureful and meaningful. Slow food values are inside each of us—we’re just waiting for them to be awakened. All it takes is a spark for that part of us to come alive, for behaviors to shift.

Waters then shared several of the transformational edible education projects she’s either been part of or initiated—like The Edible Schoolyard at a middle school in Berkely that has inspired a movement and thousands of similar programs around the world, or The Garden Project at the San Francisco Jail. Education has to be the number one priority. We have to lift up the teacher and the farmer. Once our senses are stimulated and opened, we’re empowered.

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