“I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine. I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes. I lived on honeycomb.”
— Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
Like the young Wilde, Alice Waters chose to devote her life to pleasure. But while Wilde lived to repent that path, concluding that it led to ruin, Waters insists that pleasure points the way to virtue.
In her new cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, Waters briefly recounts the 1971 opening of her iconic restaurant, Chez Panisse. “Young and naïve,” she set out to find delicious things to cook. “I was searching for flavor, not philosophy,” she writes. Of course, she found both.
First, she discovered that “the people who were growing the tastiest food were organic farmers in my own backyard.” From there it was but a short hop to virtue. A community of farmers, foragers, eaters, and chefs quickly formed around Chez Panisse, sharing “not only a commitment to protect our natural resources, but an appreciation of the value of food itself, a love for its taste and beauty and the deep pleasure it can bring.”
Ah, pleasure — “deep,” no less. Unlike Wilde, whose witticisms crackle with irony, Waters has always come off as a bit earnest in print. (Her somewhat dowdy prose style aside, Waters and her early Chez Panisse cohort achieved heights of ribaldry that might have made Wilde himself blush, judging from accounts in David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula and Thomas McNamee’s biography Alice Waters and Chez Panisse.)
The Art of Simple Food might just as easily be titled The Importance of Being Earnest. Waters wants to teach not only how to cook and eat, but also how to live. The book could be parodied as pious and didactic, but Waters has plenty to teach a puritanical culture that has nearly obliterated its food traditions.
In his biography, McNamee quotes Waters recalling her mood when she returned from a mid-1960s pilgrimage to France. The quote could serve as the epigraph to The Art of Simple Food:
I wanted hot baguettes in the morning, and apricot jam, and café au lait in bowls, and I wanted a café to hang out in, in the afternoon, and I wanted civilized meals, and I wanted to wear French clothes. The cultural experience, that aesthetic, that paying attention to every little detail — I wanted to live my life like that.
Imagine returning from Europe with such tastes, in that era of instant coffee, TV dinners, and fast food ascendant. In the early 1960s, Julia Child returned from France and published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a determined attempt to teach bourgeois American women how to entertain in style. Waters, on the other hand, fixated on the quotidian, the daily pleasures that make life rich. Child wanted to return style to the dinner party. Waters insisted that it be present at the kitchen table.
If Chez Panisse was the temple that arose from her French epiphany, then The Art of Simple Food is Alice Waters’ bible. Since the early 1990s, a series of Chez Panisse cookbooks has steadily issued from the restaurant’s chefs, usually co-authored by Waters; these books, including Chez Panisse Fruit and Chez Panisse Desserts, are classics, but they’re directed at serious cooks. The Art of Simple Food — Waters’ first solo effort — changes direction by welcoming both the experienced and the untutored.
As you’d expect from a bible, there’s even a list of commandments. Moses carved 10 in stone; Waters offers only eight, including “Cook together”; “Eat together”; “Cook simply, engaging all of your senses”; and finally, “Remember, food is precious.”
For Waters, the commandments are “principles of a delicious revolution, one that can reconnect families and communities with the most basic human values, provide the deepest delight for all of our senses, and assure our well-being for a lifetime.”
Wise words, and not obvious in a nation whose biggest food retailer is Wal-Mart. But does The Art of Simple Food work as cookbook? The answer is yes. Structurally, it operates as a kind of cooking class. After a short introduction, Waters offers a brisk and smart chapter on how to set up a pantry and batterie de cuisine, followed by a primer on planning everyday meals as well as low-key dinner parties for friends. Then comes a series of short chapters laying out the fundamental principles of the kind of southern-European soul food that Waters adores and has helped establish Stateside. In its final third — 11 short chapters with titles such as “Meat,” “Vegetables,” and “Desserts” — the book shifts from techniques to recipes. This is where Waters lays out the basics of her repertoire.
The book is clearly directed at nouveaux locavores — neophyte cooks drawn to the eat-local scene by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, or other critiques of our industrial food system. You haunt the farmers’ market, you join a CSA; now what? These folks won’t find innovation or complex preparations, just straight-ahead takes on dishes that are classics for a reason.
But beginning cooks will be disappointed if they expect Waters to hold their hands through the recipes. Her recipe-writing style is as unadorned as her cooking — spare and to the point.
For that reason, the real audience for this book might be experienced cooks who want to get back to basics. As someone who’s been cooking regularly for 15 years, I’ve found the book quite useful. In mid-September, I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home to the excellent Carrboro Farmers’ Market. “I like to shop without a detailed plan, feeling open to whatever looks best at the market and is particularly fresh and of the season,” Waters instructs in the pages of The Art of Simple Food. OK, I said to myself. I’ll show up at the market, buy what looks good, and see what ideas I can glean from Alice.
I came home with a late-summer bounty: beautiful eggplant, tomatoes, summer squash, sweet peppers, and basil. It turned out to be exactly the ingredient list for ratatouille, a dish I hadn’t made in 10 years. I repressed any preconceived notions about ratatouille (whatever I had learned about the dish from some near-forgotten warhorse such as Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant or The Silver Palate Cookbook) and plunged into Waters’ brief and authoritative instructions. The result was pungent, melting, and delicious; it savored of late summer in a hot climate.
I had similar experiences working through her recipes for aïoli, salsa verde, and roast chicken — all kitchen fundamentals (established in the national repertoire in no small part because of Chez Panisse’s influence) that I hadn’t played with much in recent years. Her recipe for Vanilla Pouring Custard, simple and impeccable, was the perfect quick antidote to the chill of an early-fall night.
Wilde may have thrown the pearl of his soul into a cup of wine. Waters tossed her pearl into a dish of aïoli (though I’m sure a certain amount of wine was involved). She is Our Lady of the Quotidian. By living a rich life and scribbling down what she learned, she has enriched us all.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
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