Marian Burros, Without Attribution, Labels Alice Waters the 'Mother of Modern American Cooking'

Marian Burros

We're big fans of Regina Schrambling's Gastropoda, even though her posts sometimes require decoding and further investigation. Yesterday, she dropped this doozy, about New York Times author Marian Burros labeling Alice Waters as "the mother of American cooking":

When it comes to well-varnished stupidity, it would be hard to top the latest description of Alice Waters as “the mother of American cooking.” For Amelia Simmons’s sake, she wouldn’t even qualify as the midwife of California cuisine! Squanto as the father would certainly make sense, given his early-on insistence on local, seasonal, sustainable... You could actually make a better case for Betty Crocker and the corporate horse she rode in on.

But the idiocy that really sent me to the Google to trace this nonsense back is the bigger offense, representing as it does the weird mix of toadying and objectivity on display in so much food journalism. The formula: Coin a pandering phrase, then repeat your own slobbery words endlessly without attribution.

Schrambling didn't provide any links or quotes, so we were curious, and poked around, and found a messed up case of self-telephone: Marian Burros makes up the phrase with zero attribution, paraphrases it over and over and morphs it as she goes, until it becomes completely commonplace and assumed as fact. As far as we can tell, the only person ever to have said that Alice Waters was the "the mother of new American cooking" was Burros herself.

The evolution of Alice Waters's epithets, as coined by Marian Burros:

1988: the mother of new American cooking
1992: the mother of contemporary American cooking
1998: the mother of modern American cooking
2008: the Mother of American cooking

Origins

The first appearance we could find of the term comes from a piece in the New York Times by Marian Burros, way back from June 2, 1985, "Food; A Tribute To American Cooking" (link): "Alice Waters, often called the mother of this revolution, is coming from her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley." Notice the complete lack of attribution.

The next time the phrase appears, on March 23, 1988, Marian Burros straight out calls Waters "the mother of new American cooking" in "DE GUSTIBUS; Beyond Cheesesteaks" (link).

Tracking

Wherein we track the variations, and watch her co-workers get in on it:

  • April 26, 1989: "DE GUSTIBUS; Feeding the Haves to Help the Have-Nots" (link)
    Marian Burros: "Ms. Waters, often described as the mother of new American cooking..."
  • June 10, 1992: "Eating Well" (link)
    Marian Burros: "Alice Waters, often described as the mother of contemporary American cooking"
  • September 30, 1992: "Environmental Politics Is Making the Kitchen Hotter" (link)
    Marian Burros: "Alice Waters, the mother of modern American cooking..."
  • December 9, 1992: "First Chef: American, Perhaps?" (link)
    Marian Burros: "Alice Waters, the mother of modern American cooking..."
  • December 27, 1992: "FOOD; Keeper of the Flame" (link)
    Molly O'Neill: "Alice Waters has been called Earth Mother and Mother of the New American Cusine [sic]."
  • December 8, 1993: "Eating Well" (link)
    Marian Burros: "Ms. Waters, often described as the mother of modern American cooking..."
  • March 5, 1994: "High Calories (and Chef!) Out at White House" (link)
    Marian Burros: "Alice Waters, the mother of modern American cooking..."
  • June 19, 1996: "A New View On Training Food Experts" (link)
    Marian Burros: "Alice Waters... often described as the mother of modern American cooking..."
  • June 10, 1998: "Alice Waters Negotiates For Restaurant in Louvre" (link)
    Marian Burros: "The mother of modern American cooking..."
  • November 13, 2005: "Who Are You? Why Are You Here?" (link)
    William L. Hamilton: "Alice Waters, the mother of new American cuisine."
  • May 30, 2007: "Fighting the Tide, a Few Restaurants Tilt to Tap Water" (link)
    Marian Burros: "Alice Waters, the godmother of things organic, sustainable and local..."
  • And, finally, what set this all off:
    December 22, 2008: "Alice Waters and Daniel Boulud to Headline Charity Event in D.C." a post from the Times' The Caucus Blog (link)
    Marian Burros: "Ms. Waters, the legendary owner of Chez Panisse, who is called the Mother of American cooking..."

The Reach

In some instances, people attribute the quote to the Times, writing things such as (paraphrasing): "Alice Waters, called the mother of modern American cooking by the New York Times," but in most instances you'll just see the phrase used completely unattributed, as though it's fact.

How far-ranging does the phrase go? Even the book Alice Waters and Chez Panisse (link) by Thomas McNamee parrots the line: "Alice had become known as the mother of the New American Cooking, or California cuisine, as it came to be called." The "product description" attached to the book at all the major online booksellers describes it as "the first authorized biography of 'the mother of American cooking'."

Even Martha Stewart gets in on it, calling Waters "the mother of modern American cooking." (link)

Assume that if the Times repeats a phrase often enough, it'll become true.

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