The Ethics of Eating
I was an average kid — a middle-class American — who grew up in an average family. One of my earliest memories is of my mother in our back yard pointing out and naming the flowers to me, encouraging me to smell the forsythia, the lilies of the valley, and the lilacs. My father had planted a victory garden in our yard. During World War II the government encouraged families to grow food for their own tables as part of the war effort. One Fourth of July, for a costume contest, my mother dressed me as the Queen of the Garden. I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old at the time, but I have a vivid memory of my outfit: a skirt made of big lacy stalks of asparagus that had gone to seed, a lettuce leaf top, bracelets and necklaces made out of peppers and radishes, and a wreath of strawberries for my head.
It was much later before I really started to pay attention to eating with all my senses. I spent my junior year in college in Paris. I hardly ever attended classes that year — my friend Sarah and I were too busy eating. We started out in the self-service cafeteria, where there were things I had never tasted before: yogurt, oysters, warm baguettes. I started hanging out with French friends who took a critical approach to food as a matter of course. For the first time, I was seeing how people live who think of good food as an indispensable part of their lives. Every day was punctuated by food-related decisions. Naturally, one spent an hour or so in the afternoon at the cafe with one’s friends. But most revealing to me, we ate food only when it was in season, because that was when it was the least expensive and the best tasting. Eating together was a ritual that filled life with meaning, a sacred moment of the day, when flavors and smells intermingled with ideas and feelings.
I had never thought about food so seriously before. I had never thought of pleasure so seriously before. I wasn’t I making an intellectual effort to understand all this; I was absorbing these lessons by osmosis. I had begun to feel that there is an intimate connection between food and the quality of people’s lives.
I think many French women and men have preserved a healthier, more natural way of eating. The last time I was in France with my family, we were fed by a friend of mine, a woman in her twenties who lives by herself, but who didn’t hesitate at all to invite us to dinner at her tiny apartment. It was very simple and not the least bit extravagant: There was salad, some roast lamb, cheese, and fruit, and the house was full of the good smells of garlic and rosemary.
What was so healthy and natural about this was the spirit with which she did it. She had cared enough to find good, local food — the best, not necessarily the most expensive — and to cook and serve it very simply, in such a way that it tasted like the essence of what it was. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, such a meal honors the materials from which it is made; it honors the art by which it is made; it honors the person who makes it, and those who share it.
After I graduated from college, I traveled all over Turkey and experienced the kind of hospitality you usually only read about — the no-questions-asked, totally accepting and generous sharing that only people who live close to the land seem to be able to offer to total strangers. Once we were camping out in the countryside, not far from some goatherds, and when we woke up in the morning we found that they had silently slipped a bowl of goat’s milk under our tent flap while we slept. They simply shared the best they had. This is how we were treated everywhere we went. I didn’t know then that the things I was learning about food and hospitality would profoundly alter the course my life would take.
From Turkey we went to Corfu where I lived for awhile on practically nothing, very simply, watching the sun and moon rising and setting over the sea. We ate fish just caught from the same sea, and picked fruit from the trees. There was a sense of immediacy and aliveness to the food. I was unmistakably part of the natural rhythm of the place. Everything seemed comprehensible. Looking back, I see now that I was learning that eating in this way can keep you in harmony with the earth. Not too long after I moved back to Berkeley I started Chez Panisse Restaurant with a small band of friends and ten thousand borrowed dollars. I was 27 years old. I was unbelievably naive, but obsessed with the desire to replicate the experience of eating I had loved over in Europe. I didn’t appreciate how out of the ordinary it would be to think about food this way in an American restaurant.
Cooking food in season, for example, seemed like a foreign concept when we were starting out. In this country we were used to frozen food, and produce shipped from far away, available the year round. We had come so far from enjoying fruit right off the tree and only served right then, at its very best and ripest, that when we did serve fruit like that, a single perfect peach could be a revelation.
The more we got involved in trying to make our fantasies come true, the more we realized it wasn’t simply a matter of going to the market and getting, say, tiny green beans at the peak of their season, because nobody was picking them that small or getting them to market that fast. More often than not, the fish we had to buy wasn’t right out of the water that morning. That simple recipe for roasted chicken that had been so delicious in France never tasted right, because the chickens we could get had all the flavor bred out of them.
We had to start looking for all these products, and it has taken years to find them. The process began when a neighbor offered us radishes and sorrel from her backyard garden, 22 years ago. Now we have a network of over 75 purveyors in California and Oregon who supply us with foodstuffs — including a farm in Sonoma that takes our compost and a little money in exchange for vegetables.
We discovered a pattern: When we looked for the freshest and best-tasting ingredients, we found that the people who produced them were frequently the most environmentally responsible. When we tried to find the products that were certified organic, we found that if they were fresh and ripe, they usually tasted the best.
I believed then, and I believe now, that actions have consequences, and that people acting responsibly can make a difference. I believe that how you eat, and how you choose your food is an act that combines the political — your place in the world of other people — with the most intensely personal — the way you use your mind and your senses, together, for the gratification of your soul.
Use eating to educate your senses. If you let your senses be deadened, and settle for food that’s processed and wrapped and refrigerated, you’re depriving yourself of the wealth of information that comes from sensual stimulation. Eating food is the best way to open up these pathways; it’s something you do every day. So pay attention to what you are eating. If you choose food that is aromatic, with rich colors and varied flavors, your senses will be stimulated in ways that will enhance your consciousness, and that will improve your ability to communicate, not just about food, but about everything.
In many ways, the world we face is a sinister and dangerous place. We are beginning to see the frightening results of the damage we have already done to our environment. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a report estimating that out of every five rivers, lakes, and streams in the country, three are so seriously polluted that we cannot safely eat the fish in them. And yet we go on with no adequate plan to conserve our resources and, apparently, without sufficient political will to slow down the pace of destruction.
However, you can make your own decisions about food without needing anyone’s permission and without anyone else’s help. If you choose to eat mass-produced fast food you are supporting a network of supply and demand that is destroying local communities and traditional ways of life all over the world — a system that replaces self-sufficiency with dependence. And you are supporting a method of agriculture that is ecologically unsound — that depletes the soil and leaves harmful chemical residues in our food.
But if you decide to eat fresh food in season — and only in season — that is locally grown by farmers who take care of the earth, then you are contributing to the health and stability of local agriculture and local communities. When I buy food from farmers markets, the food is alive, and it is irresistible. If we demand fresh, nourishing food, we help erase the stigma of elitism that is attached to good food in this country. Wholesome, honest food should be an entitlement of all Americans, not just the rich.
Part of the problem with our national attitudes toward food is that we are brought up to believe that food just isn’t that important. Children aren’t even taught to be curious about what they eat. Many of us have been taught that eating quickly is a good thing, and that no fuss, no mess, and no preparation time are good things. But we’re missing the point when we try to save time by not shopping and cooking for ourselves. If we rush to eat quickly so we can get the so-called “worthwhile” leisure-time stuff, we are cheating ourselves. One of the truly worthwhile pleasures in life, it seems to me, is not in getting away from work, but in doing good work that means something. Food can be transformative in everyone’s life. One of the most powerful demonstrations of this truth is at the San Francisco County Jail. About twelve years ago, a woman named Cathrine Sneed started a program called the Garden Project to teach organic gardening to inmates. The inmates in the program — Cathrine calls them her students — grow fruits and vegetables that are taken to homeless centers in San Francisco.
The effect of this experience on some of the gardeners has been so overwhelming that when they are freed they want to go back to jail in order to continue working in the garden. So Cathrine started another garden on the outside for her alumni to cultivate. Restaurants like mine buy its high-quality produce, which helps support this remarkable community project.
This Garden Project incorporates all that I think is important about food: The gardeners are not only growing and harvesting food, but they are cooking and serving it, and sitting down and eating together with a renewed sense of self-esteem, and with flowers from the garden on their table. All of us, in or out of jail, need to learn this lesson. All of us must acknowledge that feeding one another is a fundamental part of healthy and moral living. Offering people things that help them to grow, physically and spiritually, is an act of the greatest love and respect for humanity. Supporting an economy that cares for the land is an act of the greatest love and respect for the planet that nourishes us.
This is the path we should follow throughout our lives. Remember, eating is an agricultural and political act, as well as a way to educate our senses. May we always enjoy it — intensely, I hope! It can change the way we treat each other, and it can change the world.
Alice Waters is a former Land Institute board member. This article is adapted from a talk she gave at Prairie Festival 1994.