Part selective 60s theme park, part serious educational and eating opportunity, and part sunny day of fun, what was dubbed “OPENeducation” drew hundreds to an outdoor carnival of food philosophy in the sculpture garden of the Berkeley Art Museum on Saturday, August 27, 2011.
It was one element of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant. Most of the other events publicized by the Chez Panisse Foundation (now morphing into the Edible Schoolyard Foundation) were pricey fundraising dinners and galas that unfolded over the week, at which the finely-fed and well-heeled paid anywhere from $100 to a couple of thousand dollars per person to partake.
In contrast, participants at OPENeducation who had made free advance reservations for timed entry were let in through the gates of the terraced sculpture garden that wraps around the west side of the massive concrete museum edifice on Bancroft Way. Each attendee’s hand was marked with a stamp that mimicked the Department of Agriculture stamps placed on inspected meat.
The program handout described the event as “an educational experience based on curiosity, play, and desire…visitors shape their own education by participating in the creation, production, and consumption of food as collective performance.” It was, the program said, “part demystification of the lore of the kitchen and part tracing the genealogy of Chez Panisse and its influences—from the free speech movement to Edible Schoolyards…”
It was a bit like a ‘60s carnival. Take a free speech stand on the cop car! See the anti-capitalists who brought food to the People! Back to the land! But it was also filled with interesting displays, people, and aromas.
Goats to Loaves
An outdoor alcove between two walls served as a temporary pen for a small herd of handsome goats. I thought for a moment that the gamboling kids might be there to be ceremonially butchered and cooked up delectably fresh. But, after consulting the program, I realized the juvenile goats were just along for the show; the real event was the adult goats, set to be milked at intervals during the day.
On the other side of the wall, students from the Edible Schoolyard, the iconic educational creation of Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, took sheaves of grain, beat them in bags against the concrete, winnowed out chaff, and invited visitors to help hand mill the result. There was also a bicycle-powered grinder enthusiastically operated by students.
At the next station, staff from Acme Bakery (and some originals of the 1960s San Francisco “Digger” movement) used portable ovens—one ornamented with a clenched fist—and tin cans to bake hot loaves of brown bread that were then passed through the crowd. (The Diggers, who gave out free food, “were rumored to have introduced whole-wheat flour into US hippie counterculture”, the program noted).
Across the way a portable beehive attracted attention. Around the corner, there was a makeshift booth where various luminaries were interviewed on “A Curious Radio”, a summer project to introduce children to the medium.
There Alice Waters herself held court for a while, seated at a rough wooden table, facing a mass of children like a fortuneteller ready to forecast the future or a victorious athlete talking to the press after the big match. One of the kids was interviewing her.
Waters gracefully went through a verbal litany of the themes of the day. Buy local, eat fresh, avoid artificial ingredients, and know what you’re consuming. There was hardly a pause between each question and answer on topics that ranged from what she had for breakfast, to the nature of good food.
“If you buy food that’s not good for you, and fast food, and from anonymous people, then it’s a whole different world”, she told her young interlocutor. Most of the other children crowded into the booth were raptly attentive; a few, pressed shoulder to shoulder, looked like they wished they were elsewhere, eating perhaps.
Do you consider yourself a “foodie”?, the interviewer asked.
“I don’t like that word. ‘Foodie’ is a type of people who eat in a crazy, passionate way”, Waters replied. “It’s a real pleasure to sit down and eat,” she concluded. “I call it just Life.”
What’s the one thing you would do to change the country? “I would feed all children in school for free” with wholesome and nutritious food, she answered.
When Waters finished the interview and got up, a crowd of admirers descended to press hands and get their pictures taken with her. She moved from group to group with the genuine and pleasant, but also slightly reserved or detached, air of someone who understands they have been appropriated as a public icon.
Further along the wall of the Museum a black and white Crown Victoria labeled with a Berkeley Police sticker was posed as a simulacrum of the famed vehicle that sparked the Free Speech Movement in Sproul Plaza.
Various speakers, announcers, and interviewers climbed atop it. “This is a classroom, like all others,” one said. It recalled Sproul Plaza in 1964 where students gave impromptu speeches to the crowd from atop the roof of the surrounded police car containing activist Jack Weinberg.
“Everyone should feel welcome to jump up on the car and hold forth”, the speaker encouraged. Chalk was available to write on the exterior of the car.
Later, Paul Cannard, from Cannard Farms—one of the core suppliers to Chez Panisse—reversed the tables, speaking from the ground while leaning against the car, while asking his interviewers to climb on the vehicle. They complied, and at one point he had at least a dozen students perched up there.
Cannard was loquaciously passionate. “Without that Free Speech Movement stuff we might not have had the evolution of the food movement”, he said. He noted that in the early 1960s there was only one farmer’s market in the Bay Area, at the Alemany maze in San Francisco.
“Because of the activists who came from this police car hood, almost every ‘hood has a farmers’ market”, he proclaimed.
Listening to Cannard speak, I was reminded of PBS self-improvement lectures. (KQED should sign up this guy). His words came out in a smooth torrent, sprinkled with technical terminology, as a growing crowd settled on the adjacent lawn to listen.
What’s sustainable, the interviewer asked? “As far as I’m concerned, nothing is sustainable unless there’s a quotient of growth.”
How has the local farming movement evolved? “40 years ago I started in this business and I was absolutely ridiculed by the powers that be”, he said. “But we’re still going.” “I’m a diversified big home gardener farmer”, he said.
Statistics, calculations, and planting sequences unfolded. He noted that his farm was in Sonoma County, where there are about half a million residents. If each of those residents spent only two dollars a day on fresh grown local produce, he said, that would be a million dollars a day in gross revenue to help support local farms, many of which can get by on income of $100,000 a year.
The interviewer asked whether any of his crops failed. It’s inevitable in any given year that something won’t do well, Cannard replied. But if you’re diversified, something else will be fine. This year, he said, lots of spring rain meant the peach crop wasn’t good, but the apples and pears flourished.
What about pests, one of the students asked? “There’s no such thing as a pest in nature”, Cannard replied. “Bugs are like little agents of holistic mercy. They eliminate the weak and the sick.”
Pickles and Tomatoes
Around the perimeter of the garden and up on the overhanging terraces volunteers and staff from various organizations were busy making fresh food or showing visitors how to make it. There was a popular table run by OBUGS (Oakland Based Urban Gardens) where you could put up your own pickles in a bottle.
A beautifully and intricately drawn chalkboard chart showed the progress of sustainably grown coffee from Central America to your local cup. Salsa was being made at one stand, tamales at another.
Contra Costa College students were concocting “custom sodas, lemonade and aguas frescas with herbs, fruits, and honey from edible schoolyards” at another table, pouring and mixing the brilliantly colored juices in large glass chemical flasks.
Large cardboard letters scattered around the garden, spelling out a quotation—“The work of art of the future will be the construction of a passionate life”. Participants were invited by the program to arrange them into new words. One guest spelled out “Alice”, against a wall. “Curious” and “Think” also appeared.
One of the things Alice Waters had told the student interviewer was that she only eats tomatoes in season. It was the season, so up on the museum terrace I found a big wooden bowl of fresh cherry tomatoes in multiple colors.
The bowl was rather precariously situated above the crowd, a story below, but was soon shifted a couple of feet to the lap of a bronze seated woman from the Museum sculpture collection. The figure gazed mutely down at the fresh bounty.
I tried a few of the sun-warmed tomatoes. Not ambrosial, but pretty good. Nearby, visitors sat down to eat tamales and tacos on a multi-part Stephen De Staebler ceramic sculpture.
Moe’s Books had brought a bunch of books, staged next to a copy machine. Participants were invited to photocopy what they wished and assemble their own books. As the crowd milled about below, I stood on the terrace above and leafed through some of the books looking for a quote appropriate to the occasion.
The writings of Herbert Marcuse? Nada. Perhaps this collection of essays by Huey Newton? The first thing I randomly turned to in it was a description of how he had burglarized homes in the upscale Berkeley and Oakland Hills in the 1960s. “I felt that white people were criminals because they plundered the world”, Newton wrote.
Below, some forty years later, the crowd, appeared largely white and aged young to younger, with a few Asian and older faces scattered in—gathered to celebrate saving, or at least changing, the world through good eating. It was an audience that looked far more Caucasian than the Bay Shore East Bay in general, or even the UC students who trickled along the sidewalks outside the garden gates going about their Saturday errands and adventures.
On the central lawn little kids were now enthusiastically sorting the cardboard letters. All pretense of making words had been given up. “O”s became hula-hoops, and “U”s were worn around the neck. Toddlers toddled about clutching “T”s as tall as themselves.
A girl busily gathered the letters in a pile, and two boys began vigorously jumping up and down on them while their parents smiled indulgently, nibbled on fresh made tamales, and listened over their heads to the speakers on the police car.
Nearby, in the goat enclosure, two little male kids were butting heads and pushing each other off the straw bales, while the adult goats stood placidly by, chewing apples. “They just love apples”, the goat handlers said.
One rather independent goat explored the enclosure and found an empty cardboard box. Apparently not informed of the organic nature of the occasion she started ripping strips off it with her teeth and eating them, until someone noticed and took the box away.
The crowd increased. Some of the free water stands went dry. Food lines grew, and impromptu seats on garden sculpture grew scarce. The goat milk candy maker somewhat testily informed visitors that it was one piece per person (the candy was delicious).
Over at the vegetable soup stand a Chez Panisse staffer posed in front of a small arc of cameramen, preparing to boil a specially made pigskin facsimile of Werner Herzog’s shoe. (In a widely publicized event in 1980, Alice Waters had cooked the real shoe of the filmmaker to help him settle a bet. A documentary had been made of that incident.)
The fake shoe to be boiled today, the chef explained, would be combined with “summer vegetable soup with pesto”. He held up one of the shoes, and then ceremonially slipped in into a big steaming silver pot. The second shoe stayed dry. “This other one, I am keeping forever”, he said.
As the afternoon moved on, I had to leave the event to run an errand in Downtown Berkeley half a mile from the Museum. As I passed by Civic Center Park, the weekly Farmers’ Market was wrapping up. Peaches, plums, summer squash, and booth after booth of other organic produce were enticingly arrayed along a block of Center Street.
I thought it was as vivid an accidental expression of what Chez Panisse helped bring about as even Alice Waters might wish for.