Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 23
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
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Good Lessons From the Garden: Alice Waters Enjoys a PDS Buffet

Ellen Gilbert

“Where is she?” anxiously asked one of the people milling around the buffet table set up next to Princeton Day School’s (PDS) vegetable garden one afternoon last week.

Not an actress, not a model, and not a chart-busting recording star, “she” was Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse restaurant and high priestess of the sustainable food movement. In town to accept an honorary degree from Princeton University, Ms. Waters had agreed to speak that day at a small PDS reception for parents and teachers involved in the local schools’ garden-to-table movement. She was scheduled to speak on the transformative power of growing, cooking, and sharing food.

Ms. Waters arrived just a few minutes late, her petite stature and understated outfit (blouse, skirt, and sandals) belying her larger-than-life celebrity status among passionate foodies. At any moment during the program she could be seen clutching either a talismanic empty wine glass or seemingly reassuring basket of fresh strawberries.

A New Jersey native, Ms. Waters said that she remembered eating strawberries as a child, as well as watching her mother can rhubarb and apples. Positive food memories ended there, however; her mother, she reported, served fish sticks, and it wasn’t until she travelled to Paris as a young woman that she tasted fresh oysters and mussels.

“I came back and decided I wanted to live like that,” she said, recalling the pleasures of the fresh food and habit of making frequent daily trips to the market in Paris. “It has enriched my life. Look at that table and the flowers on it,” she said pointing to the nearby buffet. “Think about the care that went into setting it. It says ‘somebody cares about me.’”

The willingness of our culture to let go of past traditions, like working hard in the garden and setting a nice table, are responsible for the proliferation of fast food chains like McDonald’s, Ms. Waters said. “Twenty-four hours a day, wherever you go, all over the world, the exact same McDonald’s is there.” Aside from the fact that the food isn’t healthy or environmentally friendly, the McDonald’s phenomenon is culturally bereft, she observed.

“If kids are involved in cooking and growing food, they want to eat it,” said Ms. Waters, describing the success of the school gardens in Berkeley she has helped to develop. The children there “were so disconnected from the experience of nature. Being in the garden doesn’t seem like school for them. Once you see it, you know that it’s right as rain,” she said of the Berkeley program and others like it. “Kids eat things that are delicious and then they come back.”

Lessons from the garden can be extended into the classroom, Ms. Waters said, with, for example, bean-counting in math classes, recipe-writing in English, and discussions of curry leading to understanding different civilizations in Social Studies. “The way that you weave it together can really be magic,” she observed.

“I’m hoping that Obama will be a president like Kennedy,” said the 65-year old Ms. Waters, referring to President Kennedy’s assertion that every child should be physically fit, and the consequent funding of school programs to achieve that goal. “I hope that President Obama will declare that ecology and gastronomy should be taught in public schools, because we really have a health, cultural, and environmental crisis.”

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