Here is a book written by the mother of the farm-to-table movement in this country, founder of the fount of garden-derived cuisine and high priestess of French-influenced but American-driven gastronomy. A reader would expect it to be overflowing with culinary gossip. If one reads it in the hopes of finding secrets of how Alice Waters developed the dishes and overall sensibility that led to such outsize influence in this country’s cooking culture, one will be disappointed; but approaching it to learn her family’s eating habits (the Automat! yes!) and her early friendships and trips through Europe, and finally how her habit of feeding the various congeries of friends and lovers (“Alice, you must open a restaurant,” they chorus) led her to open Chez Panisse, then you will be entertained if not deeply enlightened.
“I’m not a reflective person by nature,” she writes in the preface, and perhaps inevitably for a “with” book, there are no reflections on existential angst, no soul-defining secrets revealed. One has a feeling of skating on the surface of Alice’s life. We are told about her relationships with her parents, siblings, lovers, and friends, how she was involved with the Free-Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 60’s, what the French art-house films of Marcel Pagnol meant to her.
Every so often, the stream of linear autobiography is interrupted by a few paragraphs of forecasting. These are almost always an opportunity to drop famous names, and describe Alice’s relationships to them. Julia Child, Paul Prudhomme, Madhur Jaffrey, Bill Clinton – all figure in small, sparkling vignettes inserted into the narrative. These snippets only whet one’s appetite for what could be a whole book of more interesting encounters; they are told in much sprightlier prose than the plodding narrative style of the book they are embedded in, like plums in pudding.
Some examples of inspiration are noticeable when Alice is describing ingredients:
If a particular grape varietal is planted on a certain hillside and is tended in a certain way, you get a transcendent result. I was thinking there must be a similar Premier Cru for peaches. There’s a terroir for peaches, where if the right varietals are planted in the right spots, they can be the greatest peaches of all – like a Suncrest peach in August from Mas Masumoto’s farm in the foothills of the Central Valley, or an O’Henry peach from Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood.
If only there were more passages like that! Well, perhaps there will be a sequel.
Coming To My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, by Alice Waters with Cristina Mueller and Bob Carrau, Clarkson Potter, New York, 2017.