On May 5, the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine and UC Irvine Health brought together 500 wellness enthusiasts at the 15th annual Women’s Wellness Day.
For me, Alice Waters was the hook. My food-loving soul wanted to hear her keynote address. I wanted to soak up a unique perspective on health and wellness from this much-admired chef, activist, author, and restaurateur (Chez Panisse, Berkeley). She is also the founder of the Edible Schoolyard program, a food education curriculum for kindergarten through high school students.
The sold-out program at the Irvine Marriott Hotel started at 8 a.m. Mistakenly, I assumed the other speakers’ subject matter might be highly clinical. Memories of struggling to stay awake in long-ago high school chemistry class came to mind; the odor of Sulphur mixing with the herbal scent of vitamins my mother made me swallow.
My friend Barbara Steinberg promised that every presentation would be relevant and riveting. She was right.
It was as if the speakers knew what I was curious about. Among my favorites were Dr. Shaista Malik’s lecture “Outsmart Your Genes with Diet,” and Joshua Grill’s presentation “Brain Health: Sustaining and Enhancing Memory in Aging” exploring the latest research on Alzheimer’s Disease.
Waters didn’t let me down either. In a gentle voice that was humble yet powerful, she traced the roots of her belief that eating well nurtures one’s life beyond the kitchen and table.
“Health is the outcome of living well,” she said. “It’s a richer, broader subject than how many vitamins should I take or how much protein should I eat.
“I think food is central to making our lives better. Not in the narrow sense of what we should or shouldn’t eat—we need to place food at center of our daily experience: where we eat, what we eat, and why we eat. If we pay attention to these things, our lives really change. We become alive in different ways.”
Vive la France
Much of Waters’ opinions about wellness took root when she went to France at age 19. She observed that food was present in a different way. Families gathered for long joyous lunches. Fresh ingredients were purchased daily, most often at neighborhood farmers markets. It wasn’t a “Fast Food Nation.”
“I allowed myself to feel seduced,” she said. “I gravitated to the rhythm of what was fresh and flavorful. My whole nature became awake and open. It was at that time a slow food culture. It got translated through food into a sensuous experience, into the patterns of pleasure and living well. … It entered into my subconscious.”
When she returned from France, she wanted to eat delicious food with her friends. Chez Panisse grew out of her longing to share what the French experience had inspired. She wanted to serve a single menu to help guild guests to appreciate taste, beauty, and community.
With a devilish grin, she recalled the dishes her mother prepared in her childhood home in New Jersey. Protein was king in those days. Fat, too. Treats included hot dogs split in half, filled with cheddar cheese and broiled. Or four huge slices of bacon atop thickly buttered bread.
Her fondest early recollections of food focus on her parents’ backyard garden: fresh corn, warm strawberries, tomatoes, beans, and apples picked off the tree. There are vivid memories of her mother’s tomato salad and her dad throwing corn on the fire. The smell of rhubarb canning. Peppers.
“I was so obsessed with the garden that one summer my mother dressed me as the ‘queen of the garden’ with an asparagus skirt and lettuce leaf top. Plus, bracelets made of peppers and a strawberry crown. I won first prize at the community costume contest.”
She credits that childhood garden with influencing the development of her impressive edible education curriculum.
Of the 15 books she has written, my favorites include “Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child’s Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes” and “The Art of Simple Food.” I appreciate her insights and the simplicity of the recipes. Her recipe for Cucumbers in Cream and Mint is a good example. Straightforward and delicious. I often substitute fresh tarragon for the mint. Have a taste.
Alice’s Cucumbers with Cream and Mint
Yield: 4 servings
1/4 cup heavy cream or plain yogurt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
3 mint sprigs, leaves only
1. Peel cucumbers. If seeds are large and tough, cut cucumbers in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds with a spoon. Cut into crosswise slices. Place in medium bowl and sprinkle with salt. In another bowl combine cream, oil, juice and pepper. Stir to combine.
2. If water has accumulated with the cucumbers, drain it off. Pour dressing over cucumbers. Coarsely chop mint and add to cucumber mixture. Toss and adjust salt as needed. Serve cool.
Source: “Alice Waters: The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution” by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter)
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”