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Alice Waters Gets To The Heart Of America's Health And Food Problem In New Book

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"We Are What We Eat" is both the title and the warning of Alice Waters' new book, not just that we are the too many fast-food hockey pucks and Flamin' Hot Cheetos that so many of us eat. Alice Waters believes that America's food system, what we eat, is at the heart of a lot of our health problems, climate change, even the tumult over immigration.

Alice Waters, the James Beard Award and National Humanities Medal winner and, of course, the founder of Chez Panisse, joins us now from Berkeley, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALICE WATERS: I'm delighted.

SIMON: You say many times in the book, in so many words, that what we call cheap food comes at a price.

WATERS: Indeed, it does. And the biggest price we're paying right now is in terms of our health and in terms of climate change. And to think that the solution to both of those issues is probably right under our feet - it's the soil.

SIMON: So to change what we grow, what we consume. Another point you make is about seasonality. Maybe we shouldn't expect to have tomatoes and apples, depending on where we live, all year round.

WATERS: Well, I have to say that learning to eat in season - and I learned that really when I was in Paris. I didn't know that I was just absorbing that (ph) - that when a particular season was gone, it was gone. And I ate the most delicious food. I found that Mas Masumoto's peaches were only available in maybe late August and September. But I didn't want other peaches. I was willing to wait. It was like the anticipation of what was coming next is what inspired our food at the restaurant. Again, when asparagus is gone, it's gone.

SIMON: Asking about seasonality, that's one thing in Northern California. But, I mean, what if you live in International Falls, Minn.?

WATERS: I love that question because we have not understood how to preserve food for the winter months. Just think, if you were to take all the beautiful squashes, winter squashes - they have so many tastes and colors - and if you stored them in a cool place. How many kinds of grains do we have now, endless colors of beans...

SIMON: Yeah.

WATERS: ...Carrots. I mean, I just think of every season as having its own way of feeding us. But I can tell you, we don't have tomatoes at Chez Panisse unless we've canned them, except maybe July, August, September, a little bit into October.

SIMON: You take out after convenience food, fast-food. But I feel obliged to ask, particularly during these times of the pandemic - you know, we have Americans who are working two and three jobs. They really don't have the time to shop, and they certainly feel like they don't have the time to cook from scratch.

WATERS: I believe that that is a fast-food myth to get us out there buying whatever they're selling because I know that beans and greens are very, very affordable. And what happens for me is that I make a pot of beans on Sunday. And I also make some greens with chard, whatever I have available. And when I come to cook a meal or even to make myself breakfast, I may warm up some of those beans. I put a little tortilla right on the fire. I fill it up with the beans, maybe a little hot pepper, and I eat it. And that takes me exactly two minutes, three minutes, maybe. But it's knowing how to cook. Those basic things have been taken away from us.

SIMON: I've got to ask you a question. Have you ever actually had a Flamin' Hot Cheeto?

WATERS: I'm afraid I don't know it. But I have to say that I've always loved potato chips. And I - when I went to the airport, way back when, I would allow myself to have a hot dog and a bag of potato chips.

SIMON: (Laughter).

Alice Waters - her book "We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto" - thank you so much for being with us.

WATERS: Thank you so much for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.