Saturday, August 19, 2006

Liberté Frites

Recently I watched a documentary on Alice Waters. She of course is the founder of the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley California and it can probably be said that through her efforts to run a restaurant the way she wanted to, gave birth to the organic-foods/small-farm movement in America.

Jacques Pépin was one of the people interviewed and he said that "French restaurants in America did a disservice to French cooking". In other words they ruined it for most of us. It was too fancy and too condescending. Better to eat burgers and pizza than to put up with that kinds of treatment. It soured me on all things French for many years.

That is until my wife and I went to Quebec City in Canada.

Alice Waters of course went to France decades before we went to Quebec, and we learned what she did, that the desire to cook delicious food permeates the entirety of French society. It's hard to explain fully, but the stereo-type of fancy French food doesn't exist. No matter where we ate, from the most expensive restaurants to the lowliest pizza joints, from the most complex dishes to the simplest of all foods, everything was incredibly delicious. Figuratively speaking, it's in their genes.

Years ago eating overly fancy food in a snooty French restaurant, I didn't understand that this experience didn't represent the French or their cooking. It was like someone, who throughout their life couldn't see distant objects clearly, suddenly getting eye glasses and now everything is crystal clear. It was that kind of a revelation.

This image is a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson that was published on 03/23/1989 and it depicts three grazing cows. In the center one cow has her head up with a shocked look on her face and bits of grass falling out of her mouth. She's exclaiming 'Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We've been eating grass!' Over time we just didn't notice that the once ugly tomatoes of our youth had through the commodification process become as round and hard as super balls, and tasted somewhat like eating super balls too. The advanced chemistry and techniques of the food and agricultural scientists had succeeded in making cheaply produced food palatable enough that Americans swallowed it whole and forgot what real food tasted like. Our experiences in Quebec opened our eyes (and our taste buds) to the truth that we'd been eating cardboard for much of our lives and didn't even know it.

I wish I could say that we've been following the Alice Waters method to the letter, but we're not there yet. Since we've spent the better part of our lives eating crap on a stick, a sea-change such of this will take a few more years to accomplish. So far we're eating mostly organic and we've re-discovered the beauty of those ugly tomatoes of our youth.

Thank you Alice.