Alice Waters is a curiosity among American culinary icons. The leading advocate of farm-fresh ingredients does not garden: "I only pick." The founder of Berkeley's famed Chez Panisse isn't a great cook — and hasn't cooked in its kitchen in almost 35 years, she serves more as muse — nor is her cuisine particularly Gallic.
But Waters is largely responsible for getting Americans to eat in season, local and better, to know their sourcing. She's the green goddess of kale and local sustainable agriculture.
As a result of Waters's preaching, the nation has become a feast of farmers markets and urban gardens, including one at the Obama White House. She helped make our diets healthier, educate home cooks and transform a generation of liberal-arts grads into organic WWOOFers.
Cook, activist and earth mother, Waters is many things. But, based on her pallid memoir, "Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook," a writer is not one of them.
It comes as little surprise that the book reportedly took a decade to produce and required two writers, Cristina Mueller and Bob Carrau, one charged largely with dictation.
"Senses" is not so much written as extracted. Readers will not confuse this volume for her restaurant's intoxicating $125 prix fixe dinners or delectable memoirs by Anthony Bourdain ("Kitchen Confidential"), Bill Buford ("Heat") or Gabrielle Hamilton ("Blood, Bones & Butter").
When an author warns in the third paragraph "I'm not a reflective person by nature," grab your blankie — you're in for a soporific ride.
What do we learn of Alice? "I didn't like being alone." She was "embarrassed by my father's lack of intellectualism." "I've always been attracted to sacred spaces — I think everybody is." Alice likes garlic and radishes, postcards and hats and vintage clothes, movies and famous people, crushes on lots of men. Oh, and music. "It really affected me, music — I spent so much time focusing on it. "
Casual elegance, what she perfected at her restaurant, is missing in prose heavy on hollow bromides and wincing cliches. Berkeley was filled with coffee shops and "people in heated conversation." In the 1960s, students had "a beatnik urban sophistication, carrying big book bags, very somber and intense. " She manages to make a hash-infused trip to Turkey with two Frenchmen seem tedious.
Alternately insulting and twee, "Senses" dulls the reader. "When you're young, four years is a huge difference in age." Adlai Stevenson, we are informed, "was the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 and 1956." Why say something once, when you can repeat it thrice? She advises "vitamins, vitamins, vitamins," like she's Eloise at Chez Panisse. If she had only served President Bill Clinton a perfect peach at the end of a meal, she believes he might have understood "terroir and varietal and biodiversity," all those issues that matter to Waters. (When he finally visited the restaurant, he wanted blackberry ice cream.)
"Senses" is sloppy, too. It lacks an alert editor or writer (or two) — it regurgitates information and reintroduces walk-on characters brought in only pages earlier. Waters appears to list everyone she has ever met.
Is this interesting? No, it is not.
The book ends — or, more precisely, brakes — with the opening of Chez Panisse in 1981. There is no perfect peach to delight the palate. Instead of a farm-fresh bounty, Waters serves us a frozen vegetable medley — the very pablum she has spent her lifetime trying to banish.
Karen Heller is a features writer at The Washington Post.
By Alice Waters
Clarkson Potter. 292 pp. $27