I picked up this book off my shelf in the morning and was done with it later that night. I knew Alice Waters’ name from reading other food writers associated with the Berkley area like Novella Carpenter and Michael Pollan. She is a chef who runs a restaurant called Chez Panisse. Her focus there is to be real, connected to nature, and in tune with the labor that goes into cooking good food.
We Are What We Eat is about Waters’ slow food philosophy. It was written during the coronavirus quarantine time period, so it’s very current. She brings in online ordering and scarcity and all that type of stuff. The first half is her critiques of concepts like cheapness and speed–how we do not think about or respect all the labor that goes into eating. The other half is solutions about how to curate a food life for yourself that is local and respectable. So like find out the food situation in your area and start shopping and cooking thoughtfully.
What I liked best is how she challenges our cultural conditions head on. She’s proposing something very radical in the face of capitalism. Yea why do we think everything needs to be cheap? Ultimately, that’s a marketing technique that cheapens us all. She doesn’t say this exactly, but if you think about it, everyone being convinced things should be fast, cheap, and consistent, means whatever we do for work will be seen that way too. And Waters is someone who values work. She believes people should enjoy what they do and be paid well each step of the way.
Her emphasis on nature is great too. She designs her menu around what is available at that moment in time. So that means, like, not serving salmon all year. And that means you’ll start valuing that item more because you’re following the seasons. She also only has one menu per day because it’s the localest, freshest thing she has. Looking up her restaurant now, after reading the book, she charges $175 per person for dinner. It’s crazy that in order to run a fair and true restaurant, you have to charge so much that regular people can’t go. But if every regular person was being paid fairly across the board, then anyone could actually afford this.
And I don’t bring that up to imply that she’s out of touch and says all this great stuff but is just catering to the upper class. Ultimately, her restaurant is a model for what she believes should be the standard. She wants people to garden more and cook more and think more about what and how they eat. Waters also does gardening projects for local schools and jails, which is a great way to spread this message on the ground. She’s a person who is learning on the job and putting her principles into practice. Great book.
Best line: “Part of the issue behind cheapness is that we have no sense of craftsmanship. We don’t know how many hours or materials went into producing our smartphone or our space heater, or even our chest of drawers. And once you can’t imagine how things are made, you are free to have an utter fantasy that everything can and should be cheap” (Waters 67).