Alice Waters Playing Pol Pot? Ruth Reichl Responds to Inaugural Dinner Bashing

Alice Waters is taking a lot of heat in blogger land of late. From The Feedbag’s question “Has the locavore taliban finally been checked?” to NPR’s Monkey See blogger Todd Kliman noting Alice’s “inflexible brand of gastronomical correctness” to Anthony Bourdain’s equating her with the Khmer Rouge (I mean, can you see Alice carrying an 8.5 pound AK 47 when she couldn’t even do the Heimlich maneuver on Joan Nathan?) Alice is getting shredded in the Cuisinart of the Anti-Politically Correct. And some people would say, rightly so. Apparently, her local food obsessive-slightly fascistic behavior and precious organic-y grandeur has rubbed the wrong kind of salt into the wrong people’s wounded sense of self-righteous apathy.

In an article in the Washington Post this past Sunday, Jane Black, who wrote rather glowingly about the Kumbaya-ness of the Slow Food Nation event that took place in San Francisco back in August 2008, now seems to have turned a more specious eye upon the pre-inaugural dinners organized by Alice Waters in Washington DC. Thrown by private citizens in private homes, celebrity chefs (such as Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, Lidia Bastianich, Floyd Cardoz, Nancy Silverton, Rick Bayless, José Andrés, Dan Barber) came in from around the country to cook on the Monday night before the Inauguration as a way to raise much needed funds for two Washington soup kitchens, Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen, and also FRESHFARM Markets, the organization that supports farmers’ markets in the Washington DC region. The dinners have received criticism for being at best irrelevant, at worst, down right elitist.

Patrick Martins, founder of Heritage Foods USA, who was at the infamous Joan Nathan dinner (and no, he didn’t see Colicchio perform the Heimlich maneuver on Ms. Nathan), just shakes his head upon hearing these petty Alice criticisms. “Whoever is saying these things, they should take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves, can they do better? No one else is stepping up to the plate.”

In the Wa Po article “Go Slow Foodies. It’s the Way to Win,” Black started the ball rolling by asking: “Can the combination of Barack Obama and a $500-a-plate meal of grass-fed beef in a rustic guajillo chili sauce and a warm tart of local apples and pears change the world? Or at least the way America eats?”

Can you guess what I am going to write next? Yes It Can!

On WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine Ruth Reichl and food writer for the New York Times Kim Severson discussed the implications, ramifications and machinations of the Alice Waters Inaugural Dinners.

Reichl was part of the committee, or “kitchen cabinet” as like might call themselves, (along with Waters and Danny Meyer) that organized these dinners and was happy to go on Leonard’s show if for no other reason than to tell the naysayers who cry “Elitism!” that eating good food is not an elitist act, that good food should be had by all, and the best way to get that message across is to take it to the kitchens of Washington DC.

Reichl said on the air: “When I started writing about food in this country, nobody seemed to care. And so it’s very exciting that people now care.”

So who cares? And what does that mean? It is easy to dismiss these green apple gelee and celery root remoulade glorified meals as oh so rococo and, to some cynics, a bit Marie Antoinette-ish, but at their heart (sunchoked if you will) there is substance to these dinners that can’t be blithely washed away with a decent bottle of ‘93 Hermitage.

In fact, a good many people of influence, media and otherwise were at these parties (Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Mora Liason, Rachel Maddow just to name a few) along with Obama-ites like Zeke Emmanuel, Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel’s older brother and Chair of the Department of Bioethics at the NIH who came straight from celebrating with the Obamas to sit next to Reichl at Nancy Silverton’s dinner. Presumably these dinners, which received quite a bit of media attention, have started a conversation about food in this country that might now be on the radars of mainstream media in the future.

So if people care, then what are they going to do about it? Reichl asks that elephant-in-the-room question of the day: “how can we change things in this country so it’s not something that happens to rich people but is instead a prerogative for everyone in the country?”

Per Black’s article, the complaints continue: “They don’t have a central, core message,” says James Thurber, an expert on lobbying and the director of American University’s Center on Congressional and Presidential Studies. “What policy are they trying to change?”

Reichl’s answer: “We want to change it all! Who doesn’t think obesity is a problem or pesticides is a problem and social justice for farm workers is a problem — these are all things that need to be changed and many feel that the opportunity is finally in sight.”

Liz Falk, DC markets manager of FRESHFARM Markets, one of the recipients of the funds raised that evening, said this: “Recognizing that the lack of focus of the local food movement is understandable since food is so ubiquitous at every level, from policy, society and fair access issues, to business and support of small family farms, to the environmental impact… it is difficult to know where to start. And as such, we should want a whole lot more than validation from the White House and President Obama.”

Back on The Lopate Show, Kim Severson commented that she feels a larger food movement is afoot, “a second food revolution is in the air. Everything he [Obama] eats has been scrutinized. They all think Obama is their guy. I think they are overly optimistic but I know a lot of progress has been made.”

Reichl made a pass at one specific change this fall by supporting a letter written by Alice Waters last fall asking the Obamas to consider a change of guard in the White House kitchen. Both she and Waters and others were asking for a chef that uses local and organic foods. But the Obamas decided to stay with the chef already in the White House kitchen, Cristeta Comerford, and, as it turns out, Comerford has been cooking with organic foods all along for the Bushes. Oops.

Much bru-ha-ha has since been made that Reichl and the Gang were, to quote former White House Executive Chef Walter Scheib, treating Comerford like “so many pounds of chopped liver.”

Reichl had her chance to respond on the show.

“No one is beating up on her. The point of the letter was not that she wasn’t a great chef but that the position should be rethought, that it should be redefined as a bully pulpit who can talk about good food….They didn’t talk about the Bush’s eating organic food … They hid it and that’s the point. They were afraid they would be seen as elitist… This is a country that feeds their children pure junk while the President eats organic food. He didn’t want to say he was eating so much better than anyone else.”

And just yesterday, New York Times writer Marian Burros came out with the surprise announcement that yes indeed, Sam Kass, the 28 year old founder of Inevitable Table, a private chef service in Chicago, has joined the White House kitchen. His work with local, sustainable food should please even someone as picky as Alice Waters.

So as for the Bush’s Let-Them-Eat-Industrialized, Mercury-Tainted-High-Fructose-Corn Syrup-Cake philosophy, let’s hope the Obamas request the cake be made with organic flour.

Photo: JonBauer

5 thoughts on “Alice Waters Playing Pol Pot? Ruth Reichl Responds to Inaugural Dinner Bashing

  1. Thank you for stepping up and defending Ms. Waters and what she stands for. Of course, there she bears an “elitist” tinge, but her message is larger than her pocketbook. I’ve been really frustrated with all of the negative press, making people who care about food and the environment look like a bunch of selfish fools who only care about what is on their (expensive) plates and couldn’t care less about the “less privileged.” I consider Alice Waters a role model. She helped introduce conscientious eating to America. I largely follow her ideals, and my student loan debt amounts to about 5 times my yearly graduate student stipend. So, really, according to all the negative reviews, I should be loathing Slow Food and its “only for the rich” ideals.

  2. Anyone criticizing Ms. Waters has too much time on their hands, really. One of the best ways to make change, in this country at least, is to get major buy-in from wealthy political heavyweights. Fundraising dinners around Obama’s inauguration are a great way to publicize the movement, and the funds are being used for soup kitchens. As to the argument that it’s elitist – I don’t see any of her detractors organizing any grassroots, power to the people style food revolutions. Maybe if they were doing some activism themselves they’d have a right to complain.

  3. The rhetoric is definitely overheating on the stove. Having coped with socially unconscious “foodies” in my former CSA, I realize there is a big divide between foodies and antihunger activists. Antihunger people need to stop thinking of food as a commodity, and foodies need to have compassion for the poor and hungry. They need to work together to direct our food systems to healthful nutrition of the world’s people. Out of the dialogue, a real movement for sustainable food production and distribution may eventually emerge.

  4. To try the meat used at the dinner, go to tallgrassbeef.com

    I am a consumer of the beef, and love the way it tastes. It is shipped to you frozen, but there are some fresh markets around the US that are beginning to carry it.

  5. Once I stopped laughing – the image of Alice Waters with an AK-47 is hysterical, and you gotta admit that a food fight among the food-erati would be worth attending, even just to lick the ammo off the walls after – I got more than a little annoyed.

    The critics of what Alice is doing seem more interested in bashing her politics than her philosophy. As a devoted meat-etarian, deer & turkey hunter, and locavore, I think it’s great when people with a high profile walk their talk. The problem comes with the message’s delivery.

    This has to literally be taken to the streets. Local markets, particularly in areas that are under-served by supermarket chains. I challenge farmers in the outskirts of urban areas to find a neighborhood with nothing but a jumped up c-store as its sole food source, and open up a weekly farmer’s market.

    Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl get the word out, but usually it’s to those who’ve already drunk the organic fruit juice (ain’t no KoolAid at this parade).

    Give the folks who have to subsist on Kraft mac&cheese or fast food an option.