Review by George Yatchisin
In Charles Laughton’s fantastic 1955 fairy tale noir Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum’s curdled preacher is infamous for having “love” and “hate” tattooed across the knuckles of his hands (see Spike Lee and The Clash for just two echoes). As Mitchum puts it, these fingers are “always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t’other,” but luckily, it’s love that’s won.
Reading Alice Waters’ We Are What We Eat, it’s easy to imagine she’s a preacher for a food revolution with “fast” and “slow” tattooed across her knuckles. And alas, we don’t yet know who will win. But if Waters has the slightest say in it, the whole world will soon be eating slow.
Waters hails the book as “very much a summing-up of my life’s work,” and what a life that has been. It’s been fifty years since she co-founded the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, winning a handful of James Beard Awards along the way, helping kick off a food revolution we are still feeling the aftershocks from. From seasonal single menus to rustic simplicity, from organic ingredients to directly sourcing from farms (and even, as she points out in the book, gardening programs in prisons), Waters has left her mark on how we eat. And now We Are What We Eat is the theory for the years of Panisse praxis.
Given simplicity is one of the values crucial to Slow Food, it’s not a shock the book itself is laid out in a direct, Manichean way. The first chapters examine the dangers, issues, and yes, seductiveness, of a Fast Food mindset: convenience, uniformity, availability, trust in advertising, cheapness, more is better, speed. Then the book makes the counterargument (what else, given Chez Panisse itself is a flowering of the 1960s counterculture), discussing the essentials of Slow Food Culture: beauty, biodiversity, seasonality, stewardship, pleasure in work, simplicity, and interconnectedness.
Never shrill or hectoring, Waters argues from experience, anecdote, and a smattering of statistics, building her case for all of us to take more care when eating. She pens some great epigrams, not the least of which are “Fast food culture separates ‘work’ and ‘pleasure’ for us and then profits from that separation” and “Beauty is the language of care.” In general, she’s trying to ease along those of us perhaps too quick to get in the drive-thru at In-N-Out (indeed, she pauses to almost admire the blatant honesty of the chain’s name) as opposed to those of us on our weekly bicycle ride to the farmers market. But if you are already familiar with Carlo Petrini and the Slow Food International, the book might be a bit obvious to you, even as it develops a cogent case for how “eating becomes a political act.”
If We Are What We Eat has a major fault, it’s this—as with most manifestos, the book is more motivational than operational. And while it hurts to say this about someone who has done so much good work expanding slow food options for all, especially though the Edible Schoolyard Project (now with almost 10,000 affiliated programs across the country), slow food does tend to be more expensive food that does take more time (which, yes, we should take, but can we all do that?). There’s an air of privilege that’s hard to escape, even as Waters points to the systemic issues we need to address.
That’s one of the biggest issues when we view the world in neat dichotomies like love-hate, slow-fast. The world is so rarely neat. And how and what most of us eat is somewhere in the middle.