Food for Thought serves up the perfect bite

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I intentionally live in Washington, DC because I want to feel connected and synced with people who are throwing their might behind a collective will to propogate good in the world. Maybe you too are familiar with this idea that we as individuals represent the average of the top five people we surround ourselves with. We can become more intentional and selective about the people and projects we give our energy to, but when we are in the business of problem-solving that becomes trickier.

Our best intentions don't always protect us from getting drained. In my experience of being a massage therapist, I've integrated tools to protect myself as I offer my own energy for another's healing. Shepherded by clear boundaries of what is mine and what is not, I have experienced how working in a way to bring about healing can be a source for increasing my own energy and wellness.

But this year. 

This past year I've felt my balance -- and boundaries -- disrupted by a panic that sets in viscerally, emotionally and psychologically. I have perceived a collective panic nesting in the bodies of my massage clients as the best-intended try to keep afloat and their work focused amidst a sea of fake news and shock legislation. I have also felt the panic comes in as a personal experience, tapping into an old fear that I've long harbored: I am not doing enough! Pulling from this well of panic and trying to act is inherently unsustainable and moreover, often fails to yield the outcomes our good intentions set out to do. The byproducts often generated for me are ineptitude and unworthiness, which more aptly describe the funk I found myself in as I found my seat at the Washington Post's recent event titled Food for Thought.  

I came to Food for Thought feeling spiritually malnourished and invisible. Coming from this place, I had expected this event to perpetuate my sense of smallness -- how could it not with these two grand figures it was centered upon? But within minutes all of that inner talk was silenced in the presence of two humble humanitarians -- Alice Waters and José Andrés -- who like sunshine coming through a window, warmly awakened me back to my senses. Their stories revealed sustainable ways to solve immense and multi-pronged problems through an earnest and consistently applied devotion, powered by simplicity. 

We had come together to hear about Waters' new book, Coming to my senses: The making of a countercultural cook. Jose Andrés joined her onstage, having only just returned from Puerto Rico the day before. I learned that Water's Edible Schoolyard project sprouted from her pedagogical experiences as a certified international Montessori teacher. That she came into the restaurant business through a necessity to continue nourishing her revolutionary and countercultural community with the food nobody else was making.

I learned that in Puerto Rico, the lack of accessible drinking water had less to do with its availability and more to do with human-made disasters and communication collapse. I heard how José Andrés was spending between $300,000 - $400,00 of his own money daily to bring real food and relief to some of the most remote areas of Puerto Rico.  All of this while FEMA stumbled over itself to deliver vienna sausages, cheezits and chocolate pudding.

What follows is not a summary, but excerpts from their talk. A collection of perfect bites that satisfied my craving for elegant and simple solutions that are sustainable and hence, able to feed a multitude. You can find the entire transcript of their talk here.  

Alice Waters on Coming to my senses, the Edible Schoolyard and Chez Panise:

"And all of my Montessori training just sort of came back to me.  (My mother) believed in educating the whole child, and educating the senses, because those are our pathways into our minds.  Our touch, our taste, our smell, our seeing, our listening.  And if our senses are closed down, we are not able to connect with the world around us.  And I really believe that our senses have been closed down.

But ours have been closed down by the fast food culture that we live in. Everything is meant to be fast, cheap, and easy, and we are not touching, and we are not talking, and we’re not gathering at the table anymore."

On getting your children excited about real food: 

"When my daughter would come home from school, I always kind of wanted to make the chicken stock sort of happening then, so that she would feel the warmth of the house, that she would want to come into the kitchen, and be curious.  And it worked like a charm to get her up in the morning.  I roasted peppers right on the stove and she’d just run down the stairs and say, “Will you put those in my lunch?”  And I always did."

A way that we can teach and digest that lesson in a whole different way, using all of our senses:

"But that’s the way that I think we have to reach children.  And we use all of those techniques, if you will, in the Montessori preparing of the classroom.  Of making it a beautiful space for kids to be in and they just know that they are being cared for — that it’s for them, that the room, that the flowers—you put flowers on the table.  You don’t have to say a thing.  They just know, “Well, somebody cares about me.”  And I think our kids really need to feel this.  

And so we’ve been experimenting, and we made a placemat.  And the placemat is about the study of the geography of the Arabian Peninsula, because that’s what the kids are talking about in their classroom.  So, we’re using the academic minutes from the geography class and it shows on there. But, what we’re serving them is this: we’re serving them a tabbouleh salad, a carrot soup with a little hot red pepper on it.  We’re serving them hummus on a lettuce leaf.  And so they’re eating the food of that place.  They might be studying the Silk Road in India, and maybe you’re serving them the lentil soup or the paratha, or the yogurt—the spiced yogurt—and it’s a way that we can teach and digest that lesson in a whole different way, using all of our senses."

On Chez Panise and The Making of a Counterculture Cook:

Mary Beth Albright: "And it was a restaurant born out of the counterculture, because it was born out of you feeding a bunch of people at your house who were living communally and out of the spirit of generosity, which is why the subtitle of this is The Making of a Counterculture Cook.  So, I’d love to hear more about the start of that restaurant and you feeding the people that you were writing the newspaper column for called “Alice’s Restaurant,” which was you with your crystal ball.  Before you had a restaurant, you were writing a column called “Alice’s Restaurant.”  So, talk to us about that."

Waters: "Well, that was a newspaper called the San Francisco Express Times and lots of the people who were writing for it just came over to our house for dinner, and my friend David was a calligrapher and also a printer.  And he was engaged with all of these other people who were writing about music and art, but they all thought that maybe they should have something about food.  And David said he’d be happy to calligraph it and we ended up calling it “Alice’s Restaurant,” of course, after the song, right?  And I was spending all my money on feeding these folks, these friends, and I thought, “Well, maybe I should just have a little restaurant and then they could pay.” 

José Andrés on crises: 

"What happened in Puerto Rico and in other parts of the world sometimes is created by nature.  But the next crisis always happens, created by humanity."

"We need to start making sure that humans—we are in the service of taking care of humans, and not becoming the problem, instead of bringing the true solution one glass of water at a time, in this case."

José Andrés on simplicity: 

"The same thing I answered FEMA when they told me I was getting food.  I say, “Well, I go to a shop, a big company, I open an account, I order food, I pay, and they send me food.”  Oh, wow.  So don’t take it that way, but having a generator, connecting electricity, having maybe a satellite here or two."   

"Yeah, like in Cataño, the mayor, who has been one of the great leaders, we’ve been sending him food forever.  The biggest problems of the world have very simple solutions.  We only have certain leaders that they seem to believe that they are bigger leaders by making us believe that the problem is so big that only they can fix them.  I don’t need leaders like that, that stop us from fixing the problems.  We only need people like us that just make it happen.  It is the truth, and I endorse this message."