Alice Waters' Political Flailings: A Misguided Love Story

The most recent chapter in Marian Burros's one-woman multimedia hagiography of Alice Waters (this one appearing on Gourmet's website) paints itself as "the story of the political education of Alice Waters." But it's not, really. Instead, it's a whitewashed, oral-history piece of semi-journalism, hard to parse, composed almost entirely of quotes and paraphrases from Waters herself. The article paints a strangely unflattering portrait of Waters: Even told in her own words, her "profile-raising" navigation of the world of celebrity comes off as clumsy, tone-deaf, and sometimes stalkerish.

Waters Tries to Get Close

The piece focuses particularly on Waters trying desperately to get close to Obama's inner circle, and never succeeding: "I wanted to talk to anyone who knew anyone who knew anyone who knew the Obamas," she tells Burros. The closest she ever got was at a campaign event in Oakland, California for which Chez Panisse provided the food, and where she literally shouted at him across a swimming pool until he came over. After they spoke, "She went back to the restaurant, gathered every book about food she had, and sent them to him." She never heard back. (We imagine this is because Waters mailed Obama what must have been hundreds of freaking books.)

Figuring that raising money for the Obama campaign might get her access, she managed to help raise over $800,000 at a single event in New York City. Still, no meeting. What's a well-connected wealthy liberal woman to do? Why, go after the wife!

"I had told everyone I knew I wanted to cook for everyone in Obama’s offices," Waters told Burros. "I called everyone I knew, and someone called me out of the blue and asked me to introduce Michelle Obama at the Chicago fund-raiser.” At the event, Waters "was seated with Mrs. Obama and had a chance to talk with her, coming away with the impression that they are on the same wavelength." But a wavelength isn't a job offer, and that was it, no more contact with the Obamas.

Revisionist History

Burros concludes the saga of Waters' attempts to get into the Obama kitchen with a curious elision of events:

After the election, Waters sent a letter, once again suggesting a vegetable garden, offering her services as part of a “kitchen cabinet,” and asking the Obamas to hire a chef who was “A person with integrity and devotion to the ideals of environmentalism, health, and conservation.”

Although the Obamas have not accepted her offer of “kitchen cabinet” advisory services and are not getting rid of their current executive chef, Cristeta Comerford, the installation of [Sam Kass, Chicago chef to the White House] is an accomplishment.

How odd for Burros to completely ignore some arguably important facts that were reported on in the New York Times: as former White House Chef Walter Scheib revealed, in large part as a public response to the Waters all-media assault, under his watch as White House chef, the White House has, in fact, been local and mostly organic for years. It continued to be that way under Comerford's watch. Maybe Burros didn't know? No, wait, she wrote the story:

During the Clinton administration... the White House began buying from about 40 different local farmers and co-ops... Laura Bush took things a step further. “To her credit, Mrs. Bush was adamant about organic foods,” [Scheib] said.

When Local Isn't

But back to the horrifying spectacle of the Gourmet piece. As anyone who reads food media knows, during the inaugural weekend, Waters held some festivities of her own:

She arranged a series of dinners in private homes, cooked by well-known chefs like Daniel Boulud of Daniel in New York City; Rick Bayless, of Topolobampo, in Chicago (a favorite of the Obamas); and her Chez Panisse staff, using local and sustainable food. Every dinner was sold out and the event raised $150,000 for local food charities: It also raised Waters’s profile.

But again, Burros is leaving out a critical point: It raised Waters' profile because, as the Washington Post reported, "several chefs... chose to ship meat and produce from their home towns." Once food travels via airplane, it's neither local nor sustainable. Those "local" dinners were a farce.

Waters Attempts to "Network Up"

Apparently this didn't stop her. We watch Waters learning "how to network up" from Susie Tompkins Buell, an "entrepreneur turned political activist": writing letter after letter, editorials for the New York Times, hosting events and dinners, even inviting "marquee names" to Chez Panisse.

Waters tells Burros, "I'll take any opportunity to feed anyone these ideas... I want to feed influential people who are in positions to make decisions." Globe-trotting from England to have tea with the Prince of Wales, going to the World Economic Forum in Davos to cook dinner, and going to Ireland to speak with the Minister of Agriculture — what's Waters' carbon footprint, anyway?

Being as it is an article that paints a one-sided, unresearched, under-informed, entirely non-critical picture of Alice Waters and her Very Important Attempts To Get Her Very Important Message Out, we find ourselves wondering why Waters didn't just write the damn thing herself. But maybe part of "networking up" is having someone else write down how great you are, so you don't sound self-absorbed. Thank God Marian Burros is around to take care of that.

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