When Alice Waters opened the doors of her "little French restaurant" in Berkeley, California in 1971 at the age of 27, no one ever anticipated the indelible mark it would leave on the culinary landscape—Alice least of all. Fueled in equal parts by naiveté and a relentless pursuit of beauty and pure flavor, she turned her passion project into an iconic institution that redefined American cuisine for generations of chefs and food lovers. In Coming to My Senses Alice retraces the events that led her to 1517 Shattuck Avenue and the tumultuous times that emboldened her to find her own voice as a cook when the prevailing food culture was embracing convenience and uniformity. Moving from a repressive suburban upbringing to Berkeley in 1964 at the height of the Free Speech Movement and campus unrest, she was drawn into a bohemian circle of charismatic figures whose views on design, politics, film, and food would ultimately inform the unique culture on which Chez Panisse was founded. Dotted with stories, recipes, photographs, and letters, Coming to My Senses is at once deeply personal and modestly understated, a quietly revealing look at one woman's evolution from a rebellious yet impressionable follower to a respected activist who effects social and political change on a global level through the common bond of food.
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About the Author
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When I was little, I always wanted to go to the Museum of Natural History and eat at the Automat for my birthday. So my family took the train from Chatham, New Jersey, to the Hoboken ferry into New York City. It was only for special events that we’d do this; we didn’t usually eat out at restaurants, and we didn’t go to Manhattan much. But I loved New York City. The dioramas in the natural history museum were magical to me. I liked seeing the animals in their homes, liked that I could get up close to them: the hummingbirds nestled in their tiny nests, the lions with their cubs on the Serengeti Plain, the little zebra foals. These were all exotic worlds that I knew nothing about.
We’d get all dressed up for our outings. My sister Ellen and I usually wore something my father’s sister Doris had made. Aunt Doris was an artist and often sewed clothes for us. My favorite was a cotton turquoise dress with a little pink flower print, pearly buttons at the neck, and a satin sash that tied in a bow at the back.
After the museum, we would take the subway to the Automat in Times Square. It was the first restaurant I remember going to; I must have been six or seven. Why was it my favorite? Because I could choose my own food. I can picture myself standing there in the middle of the restaurant, my pockets filled with quarters. Every surface of the Automat was shiny: there was a huge wall of little stainless steel doors, sort of like post office boxes, with windows displaying the food in each one. You put your money in one of the post office box slots, opened the door, and got your dish. Through the little door, you could catch a glimpse of someone cutting lemon meringue pie or assembling tuna salad sandwiches in the kitchen behind. It felt like an entirely new way to have food. I’d range around in front of the stainless steel wall and choose my dishes. Nothing was wrapped in paper, and I liked seeing the food before I picked what I wanted—-I couldn’t or didn’t read the menu, so being able to see it resonated with me. We’d each go for what we wanted, and then the whole family met back at the table to eat our various dishes together. I loved being given my own money and the fact that I could choose exactly what I wanted. At home we always had to eat what was put in front of us, but I loved putting my money into that little door—-it was my own choice. (The great irony is that Chez Panisse became known for offering just one fixed--price menu each night—-no choice at all. But more on that later.)
My parents had moved to our home on Passaic Avenue in Chatham just before I was born. The house was quite old, a little wooden clapboard structure from the late 1800s with a pitched roof and slanted ceilings in the two bedrooms upstairs. The family didn’t have a car until I was four, and the story I was told every year on my birthday was that when my mother went into labor with me, my father was so worried she wouldn’t get to the hospital in time that he put her on the milk train—-a local freight train that carried the milk from the dairy farms to the milkmen in town. My mother boarded the train all by herself; my father needed to borrow a car, pack up an overnight bag from home, and arrange for someone to watch my older sister Ellen, so my mother rode the milk train alone, in heavy labor. It was all men around her, and she was seriously worried that I was going to be born on the train that delivered the milk. Thank God she made it to the hospital—-just barely.
The Passaic Avenue house was what you might call a fixer--upper. It was in constant need of repairs, with holey screen doors that let the mosquitoes in and peeling wallpaper. My father was forever painting and putting the paper back up on the walls—-I can still smell the wallpaper paste. It was drafty in winter, and I was always cold. On winter mornings my parents had to stoke the furnace in the basement; it was the only place in the whole house that was warm enough, and I’d get dressed down there in front of the furnace while my father or mother shoveled coal. My fascination with fires might have first started there, but I think fire is fascinating to all kids.
When I was four, just a month after my sister Laura was born, Ellen and I came down with scarlet fever at the same time; we were quarantined to keep us from infecting the new baby. My mother was so worried about all of us. This was right before the polio vaccine was discovered, and people were paranoid about childhood diseases—-no one fully understood where they came from or how to control them, and so many children died of scarlet fever in the first half of the twentieth century. It must have been particularly frightening for my mother, because her own mother had died of influenza when she was young. Baby Laura was sequestered downstairs in the dining room, which was turned into a makeshift nursery (my parents painted it Pepto--Bismol pink), and Ellen and I were kept upstairs in the slant--roofed bedroom we shared. There was a quarantine sign posted on our front door, and my mother wore a mask around us. Fortunately, Baby Laura never caught it. Ellen and I kept getting in trouble because we were supposed to be in bed and not jumping around. But I did feel very sick, too. I don’t remember much else from our time at that house, other than the big garden out back. When I was about five, we moved to another house in Chatham, on Van Doren Avenue, which was much more of a traditional 1950s house: new and white, with green shutters and a garage.
When I think about my sisters, the first thing that comes to mind is that I didn’t know them very well. There were four years between my older sister Ellen and me, and between my younger sister Laura and me—-and then my youngest sister Susan was two years younger than Laura. Laura and Susan were together in one bedroom, and Ellen and I shared the other. Ellen thought I was a mess—-she never wanted to share a room with me and would get so upset about me throwing my clothes on the floor. I maintained a big rock collection for years; geodes were my obsession. It fascinated me that you could break a rock apart and discover it was filled with crystals, and I loved knowing about the layers of sandstone and quartz, being able to recognize them out on walks. I had shoeboxes full of rocks I’d bought or collected along the river.
Ellen wasn’t thrilled about having all those rocks in our room, either. She was bossy, always—-she had the upper hand, and she used it. We were so different in personality; I was emotional, my side of the bedroom was such a mess, and she was so practical, such a good student. I didn’t like her much when we were young, mostly because she didn’t want to be with me. We got into some vicious girl fights, biting and hair pulling. But in the way of so many younger siblings, I looked up to her. I always thought I’d end up like her: practical, a good student, responsible.
When you’re young, four years is a huge difference in age. Ellen was much more grown up than I was, and Laura and Susan were babies, so my sisters and I didn’t play together much. I often felt sort of lonely at home. Susan and Laura had each other to play with, they were only two years apart, and Ellen was with her older friends and was closer to my parents. She seemed to have more to talk about with them, being the oldest child. She always got to sit in the front seat of our green Plymouth, while I had to sit in the backseat with the two babies.
Susan and Ellen were redheads, and Laura and I had brown hair. (My Irish grandmother, my father’s mother, had the red hair in the family.) When I was little and Susan and Laura were still babies, I definitely thought I looked like my dad and Ellen looked more like my mother. I thought Ellen and my mother were sort of aligned, and my dad and I were more alike. (It’s hard to say if that was real, though, since those were just ideas that came to my mind as a six-- or seven--year--old. What was the truth, really?) I do know my dad always called me Princess, which may have annoyed the rest of my sisters. Maybe it was because I behaved like one. I was outspoken and had strong opinions—-and they were irritating opinions: “I’m not eating this! I’m not doing that! I want shoes that look like that!” I was demanding, and if I didn’t get what I wanted . . . well, you know. I had more of a temper than the other girls.
Sometimes I was sent to my room and put in my closet until I could behave; occasionally my father would give me a whack or two on the bottom with the back of his hand, but nothing very meaningful. And my mother never spanked me. I’d be punished for not cleaning my room, not washing the dishes, being mean to my sisters, all of the above, but mostly I was punished for arguing back. We four girls were always bickering at the dinner table—-I thought we’d drive my father crazy. When he wanted peace and quiet, someone was always whining, “I don’t want to go do my homework!” “I don’t want to be sitting next to Laura, I want to be by Mom.” “No, I want to be by Mom.” “I like that chair!” “No, I sat in it first. No!” Really important stuff.
I spent a lot of time alone in my closet—-both enforced and by choice. I was fascinated with Captain Video and His Video Rangers: you could mail in for a little rocket from Captain Video, and if you put the rocket under a lamp, it would glow in the dark. I’d go into the closet, turn off the lights, and set it off in there so I could see the rocket glowing. There was a small launcher for it, and the rocket would shoot up high, glowing yellow all the way up to the closet ceiling, or into the depths of the snowsuits stored on the shelves above. I mailed in for a space helmet from Captain Video, too, and I’d climb trees in it. I loved climbing trees—-I still do!—-and almost killed myself jumping out of the high branches of the willows in my backyard, wearing that helmet. (I have a beautiful giant redwood tree in my backyard right now. I keep thinking I’ll create a little high platform in it where I can climb a rope ladder and sit, so I can be up there in the life of my tree.)
I think my father really wanted a son, so I slid into that role in the family. I liked to play with boys and played baseball every day after school with boys from the neighborhood. My childhood hero was Mickey Mantle. I loved him, and loved singing “I Love Mickey,” Teresa Brewer’s hit song about him. I always wanted to be the pitcher, even though I wasn’t the best at it. The boys gave in to me eventually—-I was unrelenting and wouldn’t get off the mound—-and after a while it was my designated position. I liked being pitcher because you’re in the game all the time and at the center of things. We played every day after school, in the playground of Milton Avenue Grammar School—-I wouldn’t see my sisters until dinnertime.
For all my grammar school years, I played with the boy next door, Robert. There was a high sand pile between our houses, and we used to play on it with little cars: driving up the mountain, parking the cars, careening back down the mountain again. It was so easy to sit there barefoot in the sand with Robert, so comfortable. It was complete fantasy play, making a whole little town: “That’s my house, this house is yours, I’ll drive over and see you at your house.” I remember that absolutely vividly, playing in the sand.
I wasn’t into dolls. I had a stuffed rabbit named Rabbi that I slept with growing up, but not a lot more than that—-I was much more of a tomboy. What I really thought I was was a cowboy—-there’s a picture of my sisters and me from one Christmas in the 1950s, where everyone else is in dresses under the Christmas tree playing with their new dolls, and I’m standing there grinning in the head--to--toe cowboy outfit I’d been given. When I had my tonsils out at six years old, before we had a television set, my mother brought the record player into my room, and I listened to Roy Rogers’s “Lonesome Cowboy Blues” over and over and cried, eating my ice cream. I loved sad cowboy songs. There was a loneliness and a freedom about them that I responded to: getting away on your horse, out there in the wilderness. After my parents got a television, I watched some early cowboy movies, with Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers. (A small part of me wished for a cowboy to come take me away. In the 1950s, we were all very much in the place of “someday my prince will come”—-that idea that someone would ride up on a horse, take you away, and love you.)
Those cowboy songs weren’t limited to the record players, and I wasn’t the only one who liked them. When we all piled in the car for a long drive, like when we were going to see my mother’s family in Atlantic City, we sang cowboy songs—-my father, my mother, my sisters, and I would all sing. My mother had been a singer when she was younger and so had a good voice and kept us on the melody and in tune. And my father, while not the most gifted vocalist, was always very enthusiastic—-he totally got into it. Those were some of the happiest times I had with my family. We sang “Home on the Range,” and the kids learned all the songs from my parents’ alma maters, Rutgers and New Jersey College for Women: “On the banks of the old Raritan, my boys, where old Rutgers evermore shall stand!” And we sang other old--fashioned songs, too: “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes!” And “Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away—-there’s where my heart is turning ever, there’s where the old folks stay.”
My parents were into big-band music and jazz—-Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, that whole period. I didn’t like it. I preferred the sad cowboys, and I loved classical music—-which is to say, I liked Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, the lone classical record my parents had along with all their big-band LPs. My sisters and I would listen to it all the time, all four girls dancing and putting on performances for my parents at their cocktail parties. But my parents adored jazz first and foremost, and the two of them would dance around our house to those records. My mother always loved dancing, and on special occasions my father would take her out to a nightclub to dance. Even years later, when they were much older and living in Berkeley, they’d go dancing at the Claremont Hotel when live bands were playing.
I loved music but didn’t have a particular talent for creating it myself. My mother played the piano well, and Susan, too. We had a low Steinway spinet up against a wall in our house, and my father was obsessed with polishing that piano, even when it didn’t need it, although he himself didn’t play. I learned to play the piano when I was little but never practiced, and I can’t play a thing now except “Für Elise” and “Chopsticks.” I took violin lessons at school—-or at least I did until they threw me out of the orchestra because I couldn’t do the vibrato. But the idea of holding an instrument was something I really liked. When you got to carry an instrument home from school, it was like a sacred responsibility. I loved tucking my violin into its velvet box. It felt like something precious and valuable. (I feel the same way now about putting my knives into my knife case.) After that I took flute lessons in school until I was told I didn’t have a talent for playing the flute because I didn’t have enough breath.
I liked to hide out—-that was my big talent. I liked to make little houses: taking the dining room chairs, draping blankets over them, and hiding underneath. And I was really good at hide-and-seek—-seriously good. Because I’ve always understood volume surprisingly well, I have an innate sense of what will or will not fit into certain spaces. I always know whether this particular carton of milk will pour precisely into that particular bowl, just up to the rim without overflowing. I can get it spot on. And so I knew when my body could hide behind a couch and not be seen, or when it could fit inside a little cupboard—-I knew exactly whether it would work. How useful is that?
Table of Contents
1 Natural History 1
2 Mother and Dad 19
3 Queen of the Garden 31
4 When the Tide Rushes In 59
5 From the Beach to Berkeley 75
6 C'est si bon! 95
7 Politics Is Personal 121
8 Summers of Love 137
9 Learning by Doing 169
10 Food and Film 203
11 Terroir 239
12 Pagnol 261
13 Opening Night 269
Afterword La famille Panisse 301