A version of this story originally appeared on Stellaa's Open Salon blog.
Mention Alice Waters, one of the founding members of the local and organic food movement, and you'll find that people either love her or they accuse her of being elitist. Waters' detractors claim that her lofty standards of eating seasonal and local food are beyond the reach of most Americans.
But if you're in the Waters-is-elitist camp, put aside your preconceived notions for a moment and consider her new cookbook, "In the Green Kitchen." "Delicious, affordable, wholesome food is the goal of the Green Kitchen," Waters writes. But more important, the book is guided by her belief that "simple cooking techniques can be learned by heart." To me, this is what counts as a manifesto for the new American food movement, a movement that is about empowering, not withering looks for eating the wrong lettuce.
Recipes are easy to find (look at the Internet -- it's filled with recipes). Technique, helping another cook break down the flavor codes, is another matter. How to extract flavor from an onion, how to dress a salad, how to cook a whole fish, how to roast a chicken, how to make a biscuit -- these are things that you have to learn from another cook. A recipe may guide you, but rarely does it teach you.
In older days, this was done in the family kitchen. Children watched their mothers and grandmothers cook the basics day in and day out. Cooking like this didn't need recipes -- the home cook developed comfort with the ingredients, dishes became second nature. We imagine that this is not possible now, that this is lost to a time long gone in our world of convenience, of processed and pre-prepared food. We've been made dependent. Twenty-five years is all it takes to disconnect generations of people from the daily making of honest food.
When I read about cooking rice in this book, how to boil pasta, how to make a salad, the message is that the basics of cooking are what matter, and even though the gang of contributors are top chefs like Thomas Keller and Linda Bastianich, it's Angelo Garro (a blacksmith, not a famous chef) who walks you through boiling, poaching, frying and scrambling an egg.
Waters is not talking about food created by chefs with a staff. She is not talking about "foodies."
The problem with chef-food is that we watch trained professionals compete and create complex food concoctions swimming in reductions, foams and garnished with exotics. How can we feel worthy of such achievements? We've lost our home-cooking heritage, and trip up trying to re-create this restaurant cuisine at home. Despondent, we go to the grocery store and settle for the pre-roasted chicken, overwhelmed by the mythology of the past and the super-experts of today.
And foodies. Do they feed families? Do they struggle to plan meals in the midst of soccer practice, homework and commutes? No, they can sit around, sip their wine, and consider their ingredients. If they do not have the 1/8 teaspoon of Aleppo pepper they need, they can just change their plans and go out for sushi. Waters writes, "cooking and eating ... is the purest pleasure, and too much fun to be reserved exclusively for 'foodies.'"
But in real life, this is a movement you can join in small steps. Start with a perfect food. Go to your local farmer's market and buy a dozen fresh chicken eggs -- not the kind produced by industrial egg production giants, just a dozen eggs from a local grower. Some will have feathers, and maybe a bit of poop.
I buy from Wild Rose Ranch. Elli and Balyn, a young couple, work their fields and come to the Santa Rosa Farmer's Market every week. Rain or shine, they are there selling what they make themselves, like wonderful sauerkraut and pickled beets.
Here, a regular dozen eggs in a supermarket is about $2.89. At the same market, the organic eggs are $4.99. Wild Rose Ranch sells its eggs for $6.
True, that's double the price. But, bear with me, and splurge one time on the $6 eggs from your local market and see how they taste. How much better can an egg taste? I will let you judge.
Try what I do: Eat the expensive ones for meals and use the inexpensive market eggs for baking. Give the blacksmith's techniques a try. Fry or poach a couple of those farm-fresh eggs for your kids. Taste how rich the yolks are, see how high they sit on the white, proud and bright. And then consider that these people in your area were able to make a living by selling those eggs. As for cost, a freshly poached egg in a salad at home will cost you one-quarter of what a "gourmet" restaurant will charge you, and it's a full meal.
The proceeds from "In the Green Kitchen" will go to the Chez Panisse Foundation, in support of the Edible Gardens, a project for community gardens in schools around the country. Good food can be and should be political. It's not just for the elites. It's one sector of our economy over which we have more control than we think. We just have to take ownership of it.