Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Three Foodies in San Francisco

So I never followed up on my post anticipating Alice Waters & co. at the City Arts & Lectures talk on "The Art of Simple Food" (the title is from Waters's newest cookbook). Ruth Reichl moderated a discussion with Waters and Calvin Trillin. Reichl used to be a food writer for the L.A. Times and then N.Y. Times and is current editor of Gourmet magazine, and Trillin is an essayist and humorist who writes about food and life for the New Yorker and the NYT and contributes ironic poetry to The Nation.

The event was sold-out, of course, but like true believers, we persevered and waited in the standby line until some seats opened up. In the end, I never really learned the Art of Simple Food, but it was fun to see the three hang out on that stage at Herbst theater with the Persian rug, comfy easy chairs, and some pomegranates stacked in a bowl on a side table.

Trillin was by far the most charming of the three. I wish I had a grandpa like him. He kept cracking jokes and told a funny story about making his young daughter try some strange food and her responding, "Well, it's better than a carrot." It became a permanent saying in the family so that they'd all come out of a movie and go, "Well, it was better than a carrot." His approach to food is just to try everything, especially if it's from a street vendor. Someone from the audience asked how his philosophy fit in with Waters's, and he said that Waters was right but that he was hungry. Waters predictably toed the party line and talked about making a bigger effort to care about and know what was in our food. But she also later said that she always packs her own food or gets "takeout" from Chez Panisse, making her totally impossible as a role model for the rest of humanity. The way I see it, we should try our best to get food that is grown or raised sustainably, organically, and locally, but that doesn't mean we should always shun In 'N' Out or dim sum. Everyone seemed to agree that dim sum was awesome, though, even Alice.

As much as I love Alice Waters and feel that the world is a much better place for her visionary approach to food, I find her a little aggravating at times. She's a little too caught up in her own rapture about the raw beauty of tomatoes or pears. Her expression in that picture at the top just about sums it up. It's like watching someone else gush over the poetry they're reading aloud to you; the whole performance is a little embarrassing, and you get the sense that it's only partly real feeling. She also claimed not to have any clue what buffalo wings were, which I find either incredibly disingenuous or an egregious lack of cultural awareness for someone who makes it their business to know about food.

I asked Alice a question about what goes through her head when she looks into other people's refrigerators, which is uncharacteristically brave of me. Her answer was kind of boring and diplomatic, but Trillin piped in that he always padlocks his fridge when she comes over and told an anecdote about his late wife freaking out over a picture that was published somewhere because it showed him standing in front of his open fridge with four cans of Ready-Whip in full view. Yum.

I don't have much to say about Ruth Reichl except that Erin likes her books and that she seemed to be playing the role of New Yorker. She was dressed in head-to-toe black and made a disparaging joke about the Midwest. The three ate at the Hayes St. Grill beforehand, if you were wondering.

If you want to catch Alice for free and be inspired/chastised, then head over to Red Hill Books in S.F.'s Bernal Heights neighborhood on Dec. 20 at 7:30pm. I used to work at their sister store, Phoenix, and the owner, Kate is amazing and happens to have a very close connection at Chez Panisse... Go buy books at Red Hill, Dog Eared in the Mission, and Phoenix in Noe Valley! Now!


eek said...

Well said, companion.

I too am glad that AW has done what she's done -- and am perhaps unfairly underwhelmed since I wasn't alive when she sparked a revolution -- but her fluttery mannerisms and unrealistic standards for those less wealthy and more harried than she is tend to annoy me. At the same time, I myself have performed similar, less-tactful proselytizing in my mother's kitchen at the sight of pre-grated parmesan or pressed lunchmeat. The point is, in order to win over the masses, the local/sustainable movement needs more diverse (dare I say younger?) representation -- aptly illustrated by the popularity of CT's man-of-the-people perspective.

P.S. Ruth Reichl is one of my heroes. She may be a black-clad New Yorker, but she used to live and cook in an almost-commune in Berkeley and is a fantastic writer. I wholeheartedly agree with her commentary about sustainable seafood as well -- check out www.seafoodwatch.org.

eek said...

How did I miss this? Daniel Patterson (new hero!) wrote it for the NYT two years ago. I'm an ignoramus.