Sunday, December 03, 2017

Two Lives: Alice Waters, Julia Child

Alice Waters and Julia Child were absolutely essential in creating American views of food in the twentieth century. Waters' memoir Coming to My Senses, published earlier this fall, describes her life from childhood through the opening of her restaurant Chez Panisse.  While Alice Waters' entire reputation is inseparable from her life in Berkeley, California, she actually grew up in New Jersey and Indiana (near Chicago); her family moved to Los Angeles in time for her last year of high school, and she enrolled at University of California, Berkeley, after a brief time at UC Santa Barbara. She spent time in France and in England as well: I enjoyed her narration of her adventures there.

Alice Waters was born in 1944. Her early life, as she presents it, was typical of middle class Americans of the fifties and sixties, and then she was nurtured in the very radical climate of Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement, the hippies and beatniks of San Francisco, and the heated political atmosphere of protest and opposition to the Viet Nam war. She worked for the election of Bob Sheer to congress, a radical anti-war candidate. (He lost.)

However, she writes:
"Even though I shared a lot of counterculture values, I never connected with the hippie culture of the late 1960s, no question about it. The food in particular. I didn't really have friends who were hippies either -- except maybe my sisters Laura and Susan -- because I was seeking out people who thought about food and culture in a different way. I didn't want anything to do with the hippies' style of health food cooking: a jumble of chopped vegetables tossed together with pasta -- throw in a few bamboo shoots, and call it a Chinese meal. To me, that world was all about stale, dry brown bread and an indiscriminate way of eating cross-legged on couches or on the ground with none of the formality of the table. There was an aesthetic demarcation between the hippies and me, certainly as far as the food was concerned; I thought their approach was absolutely uncivilized, unrefined." (p. 148)
David Goines: Chez Panisse Poster.
Coming to My Senses is a very enjoyable book to read. I particularly admired the way that throughout the narrative of her early life, she is able to jump forward with little observations about how her early experiences influenced her mature life. Very coherently she relates how specific things -- her mother's views, her family's food ways, her educational background... -- informed her accomplishments at Chez Panisse and her still later development as a leader in American cuisine. She has a very broad appreciation of the cultural environment in which she created, and of the reason why the world was ready for her.

Alice Waters also documents her many relationships with a variety of people, some famous, some not-so-famous. These memories are very readable and interesting; for example, her long affair with David Goines, the graphic artist, who provided the art work that is in my mind fused to the era and to my own mental image of Chez Panisse. (I did eat there once in the 1980s, and enjoyed it, though I don't recall the exact menu.)

Importantly, Alice Waters acknowledges how important Julia Child's influence had been on American food views: Chez Panisse presented French cooking in a very novel way, and developed many American twists on the French classics, but American diners in Berkeley were ready for this, according to Alice, because: Julia Child.

As it happens, I also recently read a biography of Julia Child, specifically, a quite old biography, Appetite for Life, by Noël Riley Fitch (published 1997).While Waters is inseparable from California though she grew up in the East, Julia Child, whose reputation is inseparable from Boston and the East, in fact grew up in California. Her early years were spent in Pasadena, where her family lived in a mansion among the wealthiest residents; she attended high school at a boarding school in Marin County, and then went to Smith College. So just the opposite of Alice Waters, in a way.

I enjoyed learning about Julia Child's early life and the whole atmosphere of her California girlhood. She was born in 1912 -- a few years before Alice Waters' mother was born (1916). Appetite for Life is not nearly as successful a book as Coming to My Senses or as Julia Child's own memoir, My Life in France, which I read a few years ago. After Fitch's interesting discussion of Julia Child's family and early life, she tediously presented far too much detail about Julia Child's return to California, early job experiences; her World War II job in China, where she met her husband Paul Child, and so on. Fitch describes the writing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the development of the French Chef TV shows, and Julia Child's later experiences with great fame and success -- all in way too much detail. Just because Julia Child allowed Fitch access to all the letters, personal notes, professional records, and other closely held materials in her possession, Fitch seemed to think she had to relate every happening, no matter how repetitive. I kept reading until the end, but I'm not sure why. It was more than I wanted to learn.


Beth F said...

I haven't read either of these yet

Jennifer Bliss said...

I still haven't seen that Julia Child movie yet but I heard it was good!

Pam said...

I've read and enjoyed both books! Alice Waters definitely was for free love and mighty hard drinking. Sh
e was a free spirit and knew her way around the kitchen. And she had interesting experiences leading to her profession. She knew how to bring it all together in Chez Panisse, the music, works of art, flowers and mood.
And what a life Julia led! There's no one comparable to her.
Your reviews are right on spot!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Alice Waters's point that people were ready for her type of cooking because of Julia Child is really interesting. And true, I think. Child definitely turned most of us on to how good food could be. But she was presenting a classic cuisine -- Waters was taking classic ingredients and (in a way) inventing a new cuisine. Both books sound like fun -- thanks.

Esme said...

Great review. She is right that Child's prepared the country for more varied ingredients and recipes.