Sunday, October 29, 2017

Coming to my Senses by Alice Waters

 I was very skinny and didn't like to eat much. The sandwiches my mother made me, things like peanut butter and bananas on whole wheat bread, were always dry, so sometimes I traded for my friends' cheese and bologna sandwiches on white bread. 
I really, really wanted to like this book. Coming to my Senses ends on opening night at Chez Panisse, Waters' world-famous restaurant, and it traces her path to that fateful evening starting with her childhood in New Jersey and Michigan. It follows her to L.A., Santa Barabara, Berkeley, and Paris, and gives a glimpse of activist life in the Bay Area in the late sixties. I love food, especially Berkeley food and French food; I find Alice Waters fascinating (if a little self-absorbed), and I was really hoping for a treatise on the slow food movement, or at least some good food writing. Neither came through.

The biggest issue was the writing. Even though I had high hopes, I found myself continually distracted by her awkward, almost childlike syntax, and long, italicized digressions. The quote above was the most interesting one I could find, and I only picked it because the thought of a young Alice Waters eating a bologna sandwich is entertaining. She seems to have used two ghostwriters (they are effusively thanked in the acknowledgments), but I am at a loss as to what they or her editors did to tame her stream of consciousness. Much of the book reads like what my high schoolers produce in their early college essay drafts: choppy statements of fact describing things that happened to them and awkward, superficial reflections on those events. Even though Waters provides anecdotes from decades of her life, she comes off as flat and uninteresting because the writing is so stiff.

I've always struggled with Waters' philosophy on food: that we all should be eating slow, local food; that all it takes is a taste of a "perfect peach" to win someone over to growing their own produce in their backyard. Everything else I'd read of hers wildly oversimplified the underlying issues of poverty and access that affect our national food culture, and I was hoping that this memoir, since its format would allow for more thoughtful reflection, might delve into her philosophy in a more nuanced way. It did not, and I remain frustrated.

Overall, this is not a good use of anyone's time. Fans of food or Chez Panisse will not find much to like, and even ardent Waters fans won't get much more than a few poorly told stories.

No comments: