California cuisine is marked by a style that’s as much a life philosophy as it is a set of cooking techniques, flavors, and ingredients. And that philosophy is that food should be simple, local, fresh, seasonal, sustainable, and beautifully prepared. Take the best ingredients you can get your hands on, then do as little to them as possible.
Consider, if you will, the tomato.
This week, I went to a farmers market on my lunch break, and bought some heirloom tomatoes. They were sort of gnarly-looking and the flesh was split and hardened at the stem and the color wasn’t uniform. I took them home, sliced them up, and broiled them in the oven for a few minutes on top of some French bread, fresh mozzarella, chopped basil, salt and pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.
When I finished eating it, I was actually filled with rage. Because it was so good, and because the tomatoes I buy at the grocery store are so awful and flavorless and taste like water with skin. Even when they’re ripe, even when they’re in season. And I live in California… I should be able to buy good tomatoes at the grocery store, but I can’t because they’re not pretty and they don’t ship well.
Others have said it better, more effectively, and more eloquently than I.
And one of them is Alice Waters.
In the forward to Waters’ biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution by Thomas McNamee, R.W. Apple writes that Waters is an unlikely figure to be at the epicenter of the Slow Food revolution, by way of restaurant ownership. She’s not a chef (though she’s sometimes filled in at Chez Panisse). She’s not much of a businesswoman (the restaurant only became profitable in the past decade). She’s not a chain or a brand like Wolfgang Puck. She doesn’t really even do most of her own writing (she sort of says what she wants to write, somebody copies it down and polishes it up, and then they go back and forth in the editing process).
But still, Waters is a symbol, a leader, and a spokesperson for the somehow radical idea that food ought to taste good, and like food. It started with a single restaurant in Berkeley, and now, there’s an Edible Schoolyard project at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (we saw it when we were in D.C. last month) and a vegetable garden at the White House.
(Interestingly, McNamee’s book discusses Waters’s attempts to woo the Clintons into planting a vegetable garden during the 90s. Both Bill and Hillary were enchanted by Waters, who cooked for them on a number of occasions, but always waved away her request, saying that they already had a garden on the White House rooftop, and that a vegetable garden would sully the design of the gardens on the White House grounds. She persisted, and finally, they just stopped writing back to her).
The Junior League of Oakland-East Bay’s California Fresh Harvest (2001) is very much invested in the idea of fresh, seasonal, local food, which is evidenced by its recipes actually being broken up by seasons. Waters writes in the forward to the book,
The Junior League has asked me to use this forward ‘to discuss the merits of using fresh, seasonal ingredients in menu planning and meal preparation.’ I would like to believe that these merits are self-evident. But I know that they are not. I have read that 90 cents out of every dollar Americans spend on food is spent on processed food… But it is within our power to turn this statistic around by shopping locally, cooking sanely, and eating responsibly.
And so, this week, I cooked a meal with fresh, seasonal, local fruits and vegetables in every dish. I visited not one farmers market, but two. And, I daresay, that it turns out to be one of my prettier, more elaborate, and tastier meals. Even though I didn’t do all that much to the ingredients.
Four words: figs, tomatoes, mangoes, and peaches.
And a fifth: yum.