Sunday, April 19, 2009

Alice Waters Wanna' Be


I'm an Alice Waters wanna-be. (And it certainly has nothing to do with Maureen Dowd.) Over the last two days I have spent my late nights into the wee hours of the early morning (3:00 a.m today) reading "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse" by Thomas McNamee. (I woke up to the New York Times this morning and Dowd's column was about Waters.)

As usual, many of you have probably known all about this book for a while - it was published in 2007 - and I am the usual late bloomer. But, now that I've picked it up, I can't put it down. It is just one of those stories that has grabbed my ever-lovin soul. Her personality reminds me of me and I can only regret that I didn't have her chutzpah and courage and charge to move forward with all the "grand plans" I had over the years,(but that is the subject of a memoir or year with an analyst, not of this little blog post.)

It is a miracle the restaurant survived past the first, third, even fifth year. If it wasn't the pot, or the sexual interludes, or games of king-of-the-hill played out among egos, it was drinking the wine inventory without any clue of where it was all going. In the mid-70's it was the cocaine which numbed any user to his / her sense of taste. How's that working for a chef?

But, it was Alice. Alice was a lover, a romantic, a perfectionist, and had enough of a sense of her own superior taste that she wouldn't take no for an answer. Her passions were contagious. She didn't give a hill of beans for a profit. She didn't care. This was her art, her oeuvre. She cooked for people whether she was being paid or not. At one point - several years into the business - a famous critic showed up for a review. He said something loosely translated as, "This isn't a restaurant. It is a home where people pay money to eat." She was all about the atmosphere, the flowers, the old Victorian mismatched dishes she picked up at flea markets, the red checked oilcloth tablecloths in the early days, the mismatched oak tables. (Hey, this was Berkeley in 1971.) For Alice, life - especially feeding people - was theater.

And that is why I like her. Life is theater for me, too. Or it was or is...? This is the question the book raises for me again - in my face. How do you want to live your life?

I really was a theater major for 1/2 my college career and eventually spent time as a costume designer. I lived it. The way I dressed (I designed and made almost all of my own clothes from 14 - 25), the way I cooked, the way I fell in love and probably the way I broke up. I always fell in love with artists. There was the minstrel-musician, the painter, the poet, and the teacher-philosopher who also loves to paint and draw. The way I moved around a lot and decorated apartments, finally understanding that I would never really live in a lousy place because I always had things around me I loved, whether they were worth anything to anyone else or not. It made no sense to me to live any other way.

There is a description of Alice in the book by friend / colleague Fritz Streiff, "Alice falls in love. This is the story of Alice's life. She falls in love with a dish. She falls in love with a lamp. She falls in love with a bowl of cherries. She falls in love with a man."

I was born 9 years after Alice. But we describe our childhoods with an uncanny similarity. She opens the book describing her extreme sensitivity - to taste, color, being hot or cold. Several years ago, I began to journal about my childhood and wrote something almost identical. I have "sensational" memory - my senses hold powerful, emotional memories. My grandmother's tender, picked at the peek of ripeness, strawberries, second only to the wild ones I ate in Florence a couple of years ago, the way the golden straw would poke my skin, the feel of the oily gray sheep's wool after shearing, and yes, cold....always feeling cold.

Where we differ? Alice just did what she wanted to do in college - go to France - and it made all the difference in the trajectory of her life. She found True North there in the food and the culture and has spent the rest of her life recreating it in the US, drawing just the right people to her just when she needed them. I had big dreams, too, but often shrunk them to fit my fear. I was much more afraid than Alice.

As an Alice Waters wanna be, I will be working on my omelets. Tonight I'm making wilted spinach salad with warm chevre and walnuts. I will be looking for the freshest of the vegetables at Butterfield Market in NY and at my coop in Minneapolis. I can't wait for the farmer's markets to begin again.

And, I can't wait to finish the book. I know that artistic, romantic life - I have lived it and maybe I still do - I just wonder if you lose your mojo in increments over time and don't even miss it until one day you wake up and wonder where the last ten or twenty years went and what is the one or two true things you did with those years? I am buoyed by her tenacity and unwillingness to compromise her truth. Especially since her truth turns out to be good for all of us. And, she challenges me to remember mine and do something about them.

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