Chef Alice Waters assesses benefits of old age

(GILLES MINGASSON/ ) - Alice Waters began serving organic, local food at Chez Panisse in 1971.

(GILLES MINGASSON/ ) - Alice Waters began serving organic, local food at Chez Panisse in 1971.

Alice Waters has helped change the way Americans eat. Chez Panisse, her restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., began serving organic, locally harvested food when it opened in 1971 and Waters, now 69, was a mere 27 years old. Today, Chez Panisse is consistently named one of the top 50 restaurants in the world.

Waters has tried to get Americans to rethink what they eat, promoting everything from the slow-food (as opposed to fast-food) movement to more-nutritious school lunches. Her ninth cookbook, “The Art of Simple Food II,” has just been released.

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Waters said she isn’t slowing down, though she is contemplating new endeavors: “I want to find the people who have the same set of values [as I do] and really want to make change happen in public education.”

She recently spoke to The Post about aging, and how it feels to grow older.

Let’s talk about aging.

I feel like old age in America is a very sad thing. I have been many different places around the world where getting older is something you look forward to. You have an opportunity to be someone who is respected, someone who is contributing to life in a very important way. That’s not happening in this country.

I have watched a lot of people feel like they’re being punished as they get older. It’s so wrong, and we have to figure out how to bring them into our lives in a beautiful way. What a workforce is there, a group of people who really want to be engaged.

They don’t want to sit in front of the television in the old folks home.

I think about my parents. They died, not because they got sick, but I think my father really died because he didn’t have meaningful work. My father worked his whole life. He hardly ever took time off. He was an industrial psychologist. My mother took care of four kids. She never had a job job. That was her job, although she had a garden and she painted.

You want your old age to be different.

In a word, yes. My parents were following the very best prescription for old age in America as it is now. They kept themselves healthy. They took walks every day. They went to cultural events. They went to concerts. They took the bus every place they could go. They lived in Berkeley, which is so accommodating to people who are handicapped or older. They took advantage of all of that, but it wasn’t really a gratifying life for them, at a certain point. It just wasn’t. My mother and father were 90 and 91.

No piazza to watch the world go by, nobody walking by, nobody on the streets anymore to say hello. There’s some civilization for old people in New York, but it’s in isolated little pockets. When I heard 50 percent of people in New York live by themselves, it took my breath away. How lonely.

So how would you fix that?

Have older people teach children in school, reading to children or engaging in some other way. They could come to the schools, to be fed at the schools, to be there at lunchtime, and to really shell the peas and have lunch with the kids.

Do you imagine yourself doing that?

I have some fantasies about being a vegetable vendor in a farmers market. In Italy, there used to be women who shelled the fava beans right by the table. If you want shelled fava beans, they cost a little bit more. There was somebody tying little bundles of herbs, so you didn’t have to buy a whole bunch of things, of herbs, celery and onions, to make a bouquet garni. You had somebody making that little bunch for you.

I could see myself there. I’ve always imagined myself out in front of Chez Panisse selling bouquets of violets and selling buckwheat pancakes like they do on the streets in Paris.

That would be different.

I’m always changing my work, as there are endless ways to think about food. But I’m in this very political place right now and feel like we have to collaborate in different ways to make a big impression, to change the way that we are living our lives, which is destroying our health and the planet. I certainly want to feel like I have tried to take care of this planet for the kids of this world. I really have to do something.

Ever thought of moving to Washington? I know you come here regularly.

Not moving to Washington; not sure I could handle the weather. [She laughs.] I absolutely think it is important to do something dramatic in Washington. I go back every year since Obama’s inauguration to do these events there. [Waters helped organize the annual Sips & Suppers, where celebrity chefs cook meals in District homes to raise money for the D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha’s Table, which distribute food to the hungry.] It is a good beginning. But we need to feed everybody in school for free. That’s my big vision.

And what about your future?

I have a tortilla idea that I want to make a business, in the Gandhi way — you are what you make. Maybe you make these wholesome organic tortillas and serve them hot. You give them to people to take home. Maybe that would be connected to a housing project. Or really working at the government level in other countries that are predisposed to edible education, like Brazil, Peru and Chile.

I guess I don’t really believe in retirement. I believe in shorter days and maybe in weekends! [She laughs.]

How is your health?

Knock on wood, it’s good. I don’t think about it in the way that I have to eat certain things to be healthy. I think health is the outcome of eating well.

It’s difficult to sleep. Very difficult with many things on our minds. I’ve had difficulty sleeping for 20 years.

Even now?

Yes. Yes. I’ve been looking to all of my mentors. When my friend Lulu [Lulu Payraud, owner of the vineyard and winery Domaine Tempier], who lives in Provence and who’s 95, wakes up in the middle of the night, she drinks her tisane [herbal tea] and listens to the French version of the BBC news. Then she goes to sleep again and wakes up at 8 o’clock in the morning again.

I certainly have to figure it out for myself, sleeping or taking that short nap in the daytime.

Everything in your life revolves around food. What is your first thought when you wake up in the morning?

What’s it going to be like today? I open the curtain. I fall in love with nature all over again. I go for a walk and it wakes me up to time and place. That sets my day. It is very important thing to have a ritual. Lulu collects wood and starts a fire and has her breakfast by the fire. I have a fireplace in my kitchen, and during the winter that’s what I do. I start a fire first thing.

Waters will be at Politics and Prose Saturday at 3:30 p.m. to talk about her new cookbook. She will be signing books at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market Sunday at 10 a.m.

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