Yet Again, The Old Media Defends Alice Waters

Photograph by mhuang

Once again, the old media comes to the defense of Alice Waters, this time in a convincing-sounding piece in Gourmet by Laura Shapiro. Like most acts of journalistic defense for The Queen of Slow Food, the piece has some serious flaws, glossing over and avoiding some major points that have been raised in the past (we'll get to that later). Shapiro writes:

Lock and load, folks: It’s open season on Alice Waters. Once a glorious heroine battling to reclaim our diet from the food industry, today she’s a Gang of One, trashed over and over for a long list of crimes against the revolution... throughout the food media, especially in the blogs.

Shapiro starts her piece with quotes critical of Alice Waters. Seriously? Let's add 'em up: two username-bylined comments from behemothic food forum eGullet; a critical jab from Bourdain, notably without his later gracious clarification/retraction; and some silly Republican sputtering from the New York Post? This seems to prove the point that if you look hard enough, you'll find any contrary opinion you're looking for, and here Shapiro seems to have particularly been on the lookout for half-truths and straw men, so that her job is made easier.

The most interesting thing that comes out of Shapiro's article isn't any of her tired old retread of the let's-defend-Alice trope — it's the sharp relief that's cast on the discord between old and new media. We can't help but notice that it's the old media (and The Olds who, by and large, write for it) who are willing to go to bat for Alice Waters. Witness:

The old guard in the old media sure has Alice Waters' back — and it's this inner-circle old media love-fest cabal, with occasional bouts of severely sloppy journalism (don't get us started), that rankles the ire online.

There is no war on Alice Waters

Instead of actually responding to the criticism of Waters, Shapiro tosses around words like "war" and "attack" to describe valid criticisms raised about the depth and importance of Waters' role in the rise of slow food and her current level of influence on national policy. To categorize these observations as any sort of "war" or a "battle" comes off as defensive, a little contemptuous, and mostly, completely out of touch. In truth, there is no war on Alice Waters.

We're not here to dispute Waters' historical importance or influence, but if she is in fact the "focal point" of the supposed "revolution," with her incredible access to apparently very pliable old media, it's our responsibility to acknowledge her ability (and, as it happens, her habit) to utopianly and airily do a hell of a lot of harm. Often, in pursuit of doing good, she makes the movement look bad. Don't tell us you don't remember:

  • That whole trash-talking about Cristeta Comerford (and later backtracking — the White House had been nearly entirely local and organic under Bush but was kept quiet) and that "Kitchen Cabinet" fiasco
  • the White House Garden silliness with Alice trying to attach herself to Obama
  • that fund-raising dinner in DC featuring "local" food that was flown in from across the country,
  • or ostentatiously cooking an egg in her firepit on 60 Minutes while classicly declaring that the plebians are irresponsible with their spending: "Some people want to buy Nike shoes - two pairs, and other people want to eat Bronx grapes."

These are all serious errors and miscalculations for a public person to engage in, and legitimately merit criticism. Criticism that is easily available online, and notably absent among the media old-guard. Shapiro mentions none of the above events, instead she tries to defuse and excuse all of Waters' media fumblings by calling her an idealist, saying "she isn’t a thinker, she’s a utopian" with "impossibly airy goals she likes to swirl about herself like so many silk scarves."

...But maybe there's a revolution

If Alice Waters is going to flail about, making mistakes along the way, and the old-guard media is going to stand behind her and defend her and turn a blind eye to her media gaffes no matter what — perpetuating the myth of Queen Alice through inaccurate revisionist and sometimes amnesiac pieces — then yes, there'll be criticism online. Expect it.

The issues that Alice Waters espouses are important issues, but leaving them in her hands is a perilous proposition. We truly believe that what people are looking for, what they desperately want, is an authentic and realistic (read: un-elitist) voice to support the very important issues of this movement, from environmentalism to sustainability, health, animal welfare, delicious food, etc. — and no matter how much the old media wants Alice Waters to wear that crown, the evidence is mounting that it no longer fits.

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