“Real nutrition starts in the ground, in healthy soil, with bugs and all,” said executive chef and slow-food trailblazer Alice Waters in her keynote speech at the 15th annual Women’s Wellness Day organized by UCI’s Integrative Medicine. “Food is central to making our lives better.” A Delicious Revolution is how she boils down her message after four decades of food activism. Her talk detailed her personal awakening to the power of tastiness, moved into locavore/slow-food territory with her renowned Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, then settled into the Edible Schoolyard Project, now worldwide.
“Fast food makes us sick and unhappy. We’re hard-wired for something better.” said the VP of Slow Food International. “Slow food values already reside inside us, waiting to be stimulated, by an appeal to the senses—we never dictate to kids what to eat. But you can watch children when they take a warm egg from the hen house or watch water touching parched earth, it looks like falling in love.”
In her warm and charming way, Waters has declared war. “Today, a child’s senses are closed down, due to poverty, the dominance of the fast-food culture.” The answer according to the onetime Montessori teacher, “Plant taste memories in unsuspecting children that will stay with them their whole lives.”
In the Edible Schoolyards, kids plant, tend and harvest the food that they learn to cook into tasty meals in the school kitchens, while math, chemistry and all kinds of other lessons just happen along the way.
Her own mother got into health food when Waters was 9, eliminating sugar from the house, introducing brown bread, and basically sprinkling wheat germ on everything. “I threw out a lot of what my mom made. It tasted bad.” Meanwhile, the victory garden planted during World War II that her parents maintained their whole lives was a source of joy. So much so that for a costume her mother fashioned her into the Queen of the Garden with “an asparagus skirt, lettuce-leaf top, bracelets of peppers, and a strawberry crown on my head. I won first prize.” Bizarrely, the garden’s existence never connected to her mother’s quest for healthy food for her family, but it did for her daughter. “It was in the searching for sensuous things—food, taste—that led to the local and backyard.”
During lunch’s dessert at the sold-out conference, Waters described how she went to France for school at age 19 and fell head-over-heels with the way of food there: Farmers’ markets in every neighborhood, two-hour lunches when everyone comes together to eat, baguettes baked fresh all day long. “I found my anxious American eating habits settled down. I discovered for myself—allowed myself to feel seduced, just enveloping me. The French—it was a slow food culture, pleasure and living well were tied to wellness.”
“Back in Berkeley, I wanted to live as I had in France, so I cooked. This new relationship to food, with purity, aliveness, community,” led her to open Chez Panisse. Despite the restaurant’s success, with its OG local, sustainable community, “intractable forces stacked up against us. Fast-food nation is bigger, [it’s in the] culture, the belief of a society and how it expresses itself, does business, sets up schools, how we treat each other, our parks, our politics.”
The entire event was a welcome antidote to the GOP House vote to eviscerate health care for the poor, sick, in remission, old and female that took place the previous afternoon. And the gut was the focus of the day. From the breakout sessions to the post-breakfast talk by nutritionist Deanna Minich on “the emotional gut” and Waters’ speech, it was all about what goes in and how:
The gastrointestinal system is basically a tube from mouth to anus, and it’s where we connect to the outside world. Our gut houses 70 percent of our immune system, so it better be in good working order or we aren’t. Our gut is our inner terrain, as important as the healthy soil where we grow our food. Read any vitamin label and remember your body will only absorb just half the list. The brain, the heart and the gut are our three principle body systems, and if you do good to one, it benefits the other two.
Amidst all the nerdy science the M.D.s offered, there was plenty of “We are what we eat.” While type A personalities are prone to heart diseases, perfectionism leads to gastrointestinal distress. Even the names of the ailments seem to send messages from the body to the brain: “inflammable bowel disease” may be asking, what are you inflamed about? “Irritable bowel syndrome” is asking, what’s irritating you? It may be what you are eating, or it may be what in your life isn’t working. We each need to figure it out on our individual wellness quests.
Even the session on the adrenal glands began by asking attendees to close their eyes and ask what they really need in life. Then to go deeper, what do you really, really need, etc. Apparently, 80 percent of Americans have adrenal disfunction. We are way too swept away by our constant fight-or-flight reactions, and should zero in on its flipside, rest-and-digest, instead.
In the hallways at the Irvine Marriott where the conference took place was a marketplace for all kinds of wellness products. Among the probiotic drinks and Kind bars was Holstee—its ancient-wisdom-meets-science manifesto on living well has spread around the globe—who presented Waters with an updated version of a vintage “Food … don’t waste it” sign, showing the organization’s solidarity with her delicious revolution. I’m in, and so is my gut.
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly, and writes culture stories for her column Paint It Black.