Foodie Politics: Alice Waters Goes to Washington

For one night in D.C., politicians garnered less interest than pastry chefs. "That's Daniel Boulud!" squealed one gourmand standing 4 feet from a lonesome-looking Carl Bernstein. Nearby, CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin listened to a lecture on farm subsidies. An older man interrupted to ask Toobin his professional opinion: Wouldn't Alice Waters make a great Cabinet secretary? Elsewhere, nervous politicos huddled as they discussed how best to approach Top Chef host Tom Colicchio. Finally, one walked up and questioned his judging decision from the previous week's episode. Wrong tactic. "Did you taste the food?" Colicchio shot back.

The occasion was a "family dinner" -- in restaurant parlance, the humble meal the staff shares before the diners show up -- hosted at the spacious home of cookbook author Joan Nathan. But this was no humble meal. And as word got out about the chef-studded affair, the guest list doubled -- which was all the better. This was food with a purpose. Wrapped in a colorful scarf, Nathan gestured at the appetizers arrayed in her den. "This table is meant to represent the real, new America," she explained. "We have Armenian grape leaves, and gravlax, and my housekeeper Maria made rice and beans. I made hummus with preserved lemon and harissa. Boat people made spring rolls!"

The "family dinner" preceded D.C.'s premiere inaugural event for foodies: a series of $500-a-plate charity dinner parties hosted by Waters, the founder of Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse restaurant and the doyenne of America's sustainable-food movement. The events, collectively called "Art.Food.Hope.," served as Waters' latest attempt to use the palate to change the politics of Washington. They heralded, she said, "a new beginning for the American table" -- a table filled with fresh, sustainable, local, delicious foods. Waters' own epicurean epiphany occurred at such a table; as a college student, she left the chaos of 1960s-era Berkeley and took respite in France. There, her first spoonful of soupe des legumes changed her forever. "I wanted to eat like that and live like that," she said.

But getting politicians to promote the view that Americans should eat more like the French is a hard sell. Being a fat, unhealthy cow is as American as, well, apple pie and cheeseburgers. George H.W. Bush made much of his taste for pork rinds. Bill Clinton happily publicized his appetite for McDonald's. George W. Bush told Oprah how much he loved PB&J on white bread. None boasted of his affection for Chez Panisse's $95 prix fixe.

And that's the other problem. Good food -- the sort Waters features at her restaurant -- is considered a luxury of the rich rather than a social justice issue. As Waters frequently argues, no one is worse served by our current food policy than a low-income family using food stamps to purchase rotted produce at the marked-up convenience store. Her vision is classically populist: It democratizes the concrete advantages health, pleasure, nutrition -- that our current food system gives mainly to the wealthy. But her language is suffused with the values and the symbols of, well, the sort of people who already eat at Waters' restaurant. Thus, in promoting an agenda that benefits poor people with little access to fresh food, Waters tends to communicate mainly with rich people interested in fine dining.

To be fair, she has long sought to pass the torch to national politicians better equipped to speak to a broad audience. Back in the 1990s, she sent the Clintons letters and fruit baskets, hoping to convince them to plant organic gardens around the White House and use the bully pulpit in service of sustainable agriculture. In July of 1996, she had Bill Clinton and 30 of his top contributors -- each paying $25,000 a piece -- for a dinner catered by Chez Panisse. She went through six cases of peaches to find 31 pristine enough for the occasion. Clinton left early, however, and all Waters could do was thrust his peach into his hand as he rushed out the door. She later heard he ate it in the elevator.

The Clintons did, in fact, plant a small vegetable garden on the White House roof, but it only provided enough produce to feed the first family not exactly what Waters had in mind. Clinton never became the advocate she sought. (His 2004 quadruple bypass served as an example of another kind. So much for the Big Mac diet.) Similarly, Waters' early attempts to connect with the Obamas -- offers to serve in an informal "kitchen cabinet" and tour the White House kitchen -- have been rebuffed. That's not to say that Obama disagrees with her vision. He's hired a Chicago chef, Sam Kass, who focuses on sustainable ingredients and speaks glowingly of "the table once again [claiming] a central place in the home, enriching our bodies, lives, and relationships."

Though Art.Food.Hope was wildly successful as a charity event -- it raised more than $100,000 for local soup kitchens and farmers markets -- it was unclear how much progress was made toward Waters' political goals. The politicos at one Art.Food.Hope event, at the tony Phillips Collection, appeared to be enjoying the briny oysters from Martha's Vineyard, lamb shoulder braised in bay leaf, and Goldrush apple galette. (Mayor Cory Booker of Newark and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee attended, but rumored guests Joe Biden and John McCain didn't show up.) However, it wasn't clear that they would be publicly promoting the "new American table" anytime soon. It was the sort of dinner that would work well in an attack ad. A politician who spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of such dining would be served up medium-effete in his next election.

It's not just her "elitist" food that keeps Waters from connecting with politicians. It's her rhetoric. In a New York Times article last April, Waters responded to rising food prices by urging consumers to "make a sacrifice on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes." Ouch. Chef-author Anthony Bourdain recently took direct aim at Waters' "let them eat artisanal cheese" tendencies, complaining to the Web site DCist, "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."

But Waters' vision is almost depressingly realistic. An America in which schoolchildren are assured fresh and nutritious meals and the government doesn't spend billions subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup would be cheaper to the taxpayer and healthier for the nation. What we'd spend purchasing fresh produce we'd almost certainly save in medical bills. Our current food policy makes us fatter, sicker, and poorer. And, as Waters reminds us, it tastes bad.

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