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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook

I thought I would pair books this week, so we are starting with Alice Waters' Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, followed by a cookbook from one of her former chefs at Chez Panisse.

Growing up in America in the 1950's, Alice Waters wasn't introduced to a wide range of gastronomic delights -- that era wasn't exactly known for good food, but rather the invention of kitchen items and foodstuffs that made household life easier on everyone. When she went to Paris for a study abroad trip, her palate was introduced to some of the world's finest flavors, and Alice fell in love with food. When she graduated college, she floated around Berkeley, trying to find her way, until one day she realizes her dream of opening up a small restaurant. She was never a trained chef, but she wanted a place that she and her friends could eat great, handmade French food and spend hours talking. Chez Panisse was the realization of that dream.

I found Alice's own words on her history to be very interesting. I will say at the start that her prose leaves a lot to be desired, but the meat of her story is incredibly interesting. From her childhood in a happy home all over the country to her transferring to Berkeley during the heyday of the cultural revolution, it's fair to say that Ms. Waters is a product of her culture. She trusts her instincts and it pays off. She talks in this book of her two great loves in the lead up to the opening of her restaurant, and she waxes poetically about her time in and love of France. I am completely biased, as I have found France to be positively lovely, at least once we got out of Paris. That's where Ms. Waters and I differ, but I think it's wonderful that she found the charm there that i didn't. But the rest of France -- ah. [Cue the emoji with heart eyes here.] French cuisine is entirely what Ms. Waters makes it out to be in this book. I have pictures for days of the incredible dishes that I ate while there. Just incredible.

I see what she is saying when she calls herself a counterculture cook, and some of that is on point. She is a woman chef who opened her own restaurant in the 1970's when that was basically unheard of, especially with no formal training in the kitchen. Chez Panisse serves just one meal per night at a prefixed price, and Ms. Waters is known for taking chances on informally trained staff based on instinct. Frankly, no one can argue that she knows what she is doing based on instinct. She certainly is counterculture for the time period that made her. It's hard for me, though, in 2017 to rectify that label with the story, but I will say that I believe that is due to my age and my distance from that time period. (By distance, I mean I wasn't even alive.) So I will just have to trust Ms. Waters on this one.

This book was picked up on a whim and I'm so glad that I got it. I was able to pair it with the cookbook I will post about next, and it really put Chez Panisse into perspective. I would love to one day make our winding way to Berkeley and eat at the famed restaurant. I mean, Alice's raving about her love affair with lettuce is enough to make a salad lover out of just about anyone. (I appreciate her recommendation to toss your salad by hand, as it is the best way to ensure that the dressing coats every leaf.) That isn't sarcasm, either; the way she talks so kindly and warmly about salad is just wonderful, and now my stomach is grumbling. I'm off to cook, inspired by Alice and the famed California restaurant. 

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