Berkeley Challenges Rome This Week:
Throws Its First Canonization

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday August 30, 2011 - 05:24:00 PM

This week’s hooha about the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse (for those who have taken up residence on Mars, it’s a smallish, rather expensive restaurant in Berkeley, CA, USA) has put me in mind of some of my favorite childhood reading, the lives of the saints, especially the female saints, who, it seemed to me, did just about as they pleased most of the time and yet were honored for it later. It’s an old tradition, hagiography, to use its proper literary name: telling stories about high achievers in a way that “ac-centuates the positive and e-liminates the negative,” in the words of the old Andrews Sisters’ song. The term is sometimes but not always used pejoratively. And the flourishing flackery which now surrounds Panisse proprietress Alice Waters is in the best hagiographic tradition, either way you slice it. 

Most of what I know about The Foundress and her institution, I must confess, comes from Berkeley gossip, since I haven’t gotten around to reading any of the authorized or unauthorized biographies, nor do I know the principals. Like many Berkeleyans, I’ve seldom been to the restaurant, possibly two or three times at most. The only visit I still remember was the time a pretentious venture capitalist from New York demanded that we take him there. We thought he might invest in our struggling software business. 

We did, but he didn’t. In fact, he complained about the food, but I think that was just a New York chauvinist thing, plus the hubris which is part of the VC job description. 

For the definitive syllabus of contemporary Waters lore, we are indebted to Frances Dinkelspiel and Tracey Taylor at Berkeleyside.com, who last week compiled without apparent irony a list of many (though by no means all) of the more than 100 stories which have appeared about La Maestra in the recent past as part of the anniversary festivities. My favorite title on the list was “Does Alice Waters Eat in the Nude?”, from an Atlanta alternative publication, Creative Leisure, which turned out to be a reprise of Terry Gross’s radio interview with Alice. 

That interview is a classic of its genre, Terry’s trademark float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee technique in all its understated glory. Reading listeners’ comments online, you can get the flavor of the various ways Waters’ message is digested, not all of them positive. (Reading all these food articles starts to affect your metaphors after a while, sorry.) 

None of the recent articles seem to have taken note of the longtime Berkeley gossip that “Chez” (as foodies like to call it) floated in on drug money in the go-go 70s and 80s. Again, I haven’t read the book, but online reviews of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, by Thomas McNamee, indicate that the author documented all those stories we’ve been hearing for years. Restaurants, especially if they have an all-cash policy as this one did in its first couple of decades, are a well-known way to launder cash coming in from non-standard enterprises, as pizza vendors learned years ago. Marijuana sales are acknowledged in the reviews, but cocaine sales out the back door by the kitchen staff, presumably without Waters’ participation, were also staples of the local rumor mill. 

This is not inappropriate for the genre. Many lives of saints trace a trajectory from sin to salvation, St. Augustine of Hippo (memorialized in this space recently) being one of the best-known examples. It’s certainly the case that many saints had downmarket origins—their halos only developed over time. In this secular age, chroniclers of our modern secular saints sometimes need to stretch a bit to delineate the depths from which their subjects can rise triumphant. 

From the Fresh Air interview we learned that Alice Waters came from a family in Chatham, NJ, too poor to be able to afford to take her to restaurants more than three times in her childhood. She complained that her mother inflicted on her the indignity of Pepperidge Farm whole wheat bread. 

Evidently she’s never heard that the Pepperidge Farm company was founded by a home baker from an actual farm to provide a nutritious whole-grain alternative to the market-dominating Wonder Bread. Even small steps can lead to enlightenment. 

And my husband’s grandfather, who was a sometime farmer in Iowa and lived to be 99 on a diet of oatmeal with heavy cream, regarded Wonder Bread as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, freeing women from kitchen bondage and keeping fresh for weeks at a time. It’s all about perspective. 

It’s tempting to believe that healthy and delicious food was invented in Berkeley in the early 1970s, but in fact many were eating well long before that, even if the gospel hadn’t reached New Jersey. For healthy, there was Adele Davis and her ilk, aided and abetted by organic farm gurus like Robert Rodale—all with a devoted following by the time I started cooking for family in the 60s. For delicious, Julia Child, MFK Fisher and Richard Olney went to France and got religion decades before Alice Waters discovered French cooking in the 60s. 

Even in benighted Midwestern Ann Arbor, there was a flourishing farmers’ market when we got there in 1961. We lived across the street from it, and my idea of a fast-food breakfast, on the table in less than ten minutes, was to get to the market as it opened at seven in the morning for just-picked sweet corn and ripe tomatoes which were much better than the anemic northern California ones people make such a fuss over now. Beats corn flakes and OJ any time. We bought apples (better than California apples) at farms in the fall, and we had a plot in a community garden outside of town where we planted our own organic vegis, yes, even then. 

Academics, who were world travelers when most Americans were not, have traditionally eaten well. That’s the real explanation for why Berkeley turned into a gastronomic mecca, that and the Berkeley Co-op. In the 50s and 60s Berkeleyans went new places on their Fulbrights and ate new things. When they came home they insisted that the Co-op stock the ingredients needed to replicate their discoveries at home. 

Small town restaurants, however, were a different story. Until the 1960s most non-urban Americans, not just the Waters family of Chatham NJ, seldom went to restaurants, according to my late mother-in-law, Mary Holmes, an academic, a painter and a fine cook, who was born in South Dakota in 1910. Another painter, Richard Olney, an often cited Waters mentor, was Mary’s student at the University of Iowa in the 40s before he decamped for France in 1951 and made culinary history. But Richard cooked at home and wrote cookbooks—he never ran a restaurant. 

American restaurants in the 40s, 50s and early 60s were routinely dreadful, patronized only by those who couldn’t claim a home table as an alternative. In Ann Arbor the only Chinese restaurant in the first years we lived there served mostly canned vegetables. The compensation was that home cooks were forced to do a better job. We were lucky to be in the circle of the University of Michigan Linguistics Department, where many of the faculty and graduate students came from places even more exotic than France and cooked their exotic specialties for departmental potluck suppers. 

Now everyone eats out, much more often than they used to. This is among other things a marker of women’s transition from laboring only on the home front to the commercial workplace. Not all restaurants are good, however. 

The real achievement of St. Alice of Berkeley is that she translated the high standard for home cooking in her social class (approximately, well-travelled humanities grad students) into a profitable business enterprise with a wider reach. Even at this endeavor, she was not the first, just the most successful. Hank Rubin, an Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran, founded Potluck on San Pablo Avenue around 1960 and served a similar clientele, albeit at much lower prices, perhaps because of his socialist origins. 

Alice Waters does claim some of the same leftist turf. The recent ceremonials prominently showcased her Free Speech Movement reminiscences, though she was not a leader, just a fellow traveler. As her business has prospered, she has translated her recipe for success into a varied menu of attempts at social change which have been at least a succès d'estime if not a complete solution to the problem of world hunger. 

Still, living with saints can be a challenge, which might explain some of the off-camera snarking we’ve picked up about this week’s events. It’s easy to make fun of Waters—comparisons to Marie Antoinette and the original Le Petit Trianon (not the Paris restaurant) lurk around the edges of some reportage on Panisse’s 40th. But as a one-time marketeer myself, I can’t help but sneakily admire what she’s achieved. 

Being a successful salesperson, like being a journalist or a historian or a saint, is mostly storytelling. Often, it’s about packaging yourself—as Augustine surely knew when he wrote his Confessions. Alice does it well. 

In the process she’s emerged as a kind of St. Joan of Radicchio, urging her troops ever onward in their commitment to searching out the freshest and the tastiest food they can afford. We don’t know if there’s a really good restaurant in Chatham yet, but they do have a farmers’ market, according to the town’s website. That’s progress of a sort. 


* * * * * * * * 

Watching the numerous variants of La Saga “Chez” and its prima diva this week, I remembered a jolly bit of verse by Phyllis McGinley about an earlier saint: 

Saint Bridget was
A problem child.
Although a lass
Demure and mild,
And one who strove
To please her dad,
Saint Bridget drove
The family mad.For here's the fault in Bridget lay:
She Would give everything away.

To any soul
Whose luck was out
She'd give her bowl
Of stirabout;
She'd give her shawl,
Divide her purse
With one or all.
And what was worse,
When she ran out of things to give
She'd borrow from a relative.

Her father's gold,
Her grandsire's dinner,
She'd hand to cold
and hungry sinner;
Give wine, give meat,
No matter whose;
Take from her feet
The very shoes,
And when her shoes had gone to others,
Fetch forth her sister's and her mother's.

She could not quit.
She had to share;
Gave bit by bit
The silverware,
The barnyard geese,
The parlor rug,
Her little niece-
's christening mug,
Even her bed to those in want,
And then the mattress of her aunt.

An easy touch
For poor and lowly,
She gave so much
And grew so holy
That when she died
Of years and fame,
The countryside
Put on her name,
And still the Isles of Erin fidget
With generous girls named Bride or Bridget.

Well, one must love her.
In thinking of her
There's no denial
She must have been
A sort of trial
Unto her kin.
The moral, too, seems rather quaint.
WHO had the patience of a saint,
From evidence presented here?
Saint Bridget? Or her near and dear? 

I suspect that many of St. Alice’s near and dear might have had a similar reaction to her canonization this week.