Alice and me

Food maverick inspires Tuck’s simple culinary vision

Simple food: Just cut and eat.

Simple food: Just cut and eat.

Photo courtesy of You as a Machine (via Flickr)

The other day I watched the PBS documentary on Alice Waters (American Masters: Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution), arguably the most influential chef of the last half-century. Alice, in case you don’t know, was one of the first chefs in America to do things like drive to the farm to pick up the strawberries she would serve that night—at Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant and foodie mecca she opened and still runs.

So moved was I by her passion for fresh, natural ingredients that I rushed to the kitchen and made myself a taco lunch. I microwaved a Trader Joe’s frozen chicken breast, opened a can of refried beans, nuked a couple of frozen tortillas and a packet of TJ’s three-minute rice, cracked some Raley’s salsa, combined, and ate. OK, not exactly a page from Alice’s farm-to-table manifesto, but hey, the napkin was recycled paper.

Seriously, while Alice and I appear to be culinary opposites—she green, local, personal, organic, natural and slow, and I processed, frozen, microwaved, canned and instant—in my eyes, she and I align on a basic principle: cooking is evil.

By that I mean food is good the way it comes into the kitchen. Cooking is basically the business of processing the food to “improve” what is already ideal. Sauces, gravies, seasonings, dressings and such conspire to obscure the inherently perfect flavor of the ingredients. This is tantamount to putting clothes on a nude Greek sculpture in an attempt to make it prettier.

Alice knows this. The irony is, she’s a famous “chef,” but she herself was never interested in haute cuisine—she just set out to feed her friends good, basic food. She has never sought to invent some new, complicated cooking process to create a complex and heretofore unknown flavor. Her gift was in realizing that her job was to gather strawberries, peaches, cucumbers, tomatoes and avocados and then get out of their way. The real job of a chef is sourcing—locate the best strawberry or tomato you can. Find the farmer who farms with passion, drive to his farm and gather his produce on the day it’s ripest. Italians call it shopping for food per oggi—“for the day.”

Here in the North State, we happen to have a lot of very good food at our fingertips. So, try this experiment: Buy a loaf of locally made bread, a ripe tomato from GRUB, a ripe avocado, a ripe peach from Bock Farms, some farmers’ market organic strawberries, some hummus to go from Ali Baba downtown (four ingredients blended raw), some olive oil from Durham’s Isern & Sons, some organic peanut butter (just peanuts, pulverized), some Northern Gold cheese from Pedrozo Dairy and Cheese Co., and a chicken from Chaffin Family Orchards. Roast the chicken without fanfare. Eat all these things, as is, in any order. Can you honestly say this meal could somehow be improved?

Once you get on this bandwagon, you’ll realize how much of what we eat has a blanket thrown over it to keep us from tasting it. Even politically correct dishes like salads are drowned in dressing, which just keeps you from tasting the cucumbers and the tomatoes.

My approach is easy, fast, healthy and slimming. It saves money on cookbooks. It frees you from would-be-chef guilt. It cleanses your life. It puts you in touch with the earth. Tuck says, give it a try.