Homage to the Temple of Fresh: Alice’s Chez Panisse and Memories of My Own Gardens

AliceWaters-380sm.jpgI’m off to the International Spa Association (ISPA) annual conference in Las Vegas next week, and while there I’m presenting chef/food activist Alice Waters with the ISPA Alex Szekely Humanitarian Award.

The award was named for my late son Alex, a victim of melanoma in his early 40s. Alex played an instrumental role in ISPA 25 years ago. He would be thrilled to join us to honor Alice, who I’ve admired for many years. 

Seventy-five years ago, my husband Edmond and I were in the fortunate position of founding the wellness spa Rancho La Puerta. Looking back today from my vantage of 93 years, those days feel like another life. We were true health nuts, and just about everything we served was raw...harvested from our own organic garden. We did everything we could to get the message out about eating fresh, delicious, organic produce.

Our first cookbook was “Vegetarian Spa Cuisine from Rancho La Puerta,” done in collaboration with our chefs. In the introduction, in 1994, I wrote:

“If you’re from a generation that saw mostly carrot-and-pea side dishes and lettuce-and-tomato salads routed your way in a monotonous parade from the kitchen, and were committed to eating them because you were assured that they were good for you, you’re rejoicing over the new flamboyance of American produce. Root and cruciferous vegetables, exotic mushrooms, ruffly lettuces, fresh herbs with a sassy way with them (so superior to the dried and pre-packaged)—all in such profusion of varieties that a greengrocer’s today can be as pretty as a florist’s...”

I have been walking the rows of organic gardens for a long time now, always nibbling as I go, and occasionally picking those big bad worms off the tomato plants! When I was a child, I helped my mom harvest vegetables from the long narrow beds of soil that she built up in the shells of storm-wrecked ‘canoes’ on the beach in Tahiti when we lived, literally, in a grass shack.

Why plant vegetables in canoes? That was so the land crabs didn’t munch everything.

What were we doing in Tahiti when I was a child? That, my friends, is a very long story for another time!

Meanwhile, enjoy making a salad tonight of the first order, and think of Alice Waters and her inspiring message about her Edible Schoolyard Project. Enlist all the parents and friends you know to create your own neighborhood school’s Edible Schoolyard, so that you can watch with pride as children harvest, fresh from the earth, their fruit, vegetables, and salad of the day. Only then can they taste the true deliciousness and nutrition of a just-plucked fruit and vegetable.

I hope you will say, “Let’s do it!” 

Creamy Ranch Dressing

½ cup low-fat cottage cheese

1/3 cup low-fat buttermilk

1 TB fresh lemon juice

1 TB Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

1 medium shallot

1 clove garlic

2 tsp fresh basil, chopped

a/2 tsp fresh oregano, chopped

¼ tsp fresh thyme, chopped

A few grinds of black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and whirl until smooth. Makes about 1 cup, or about eight servings. Can be refrigerated, covered, up to four days. 

PHOTO: From Todd Porter and Diane Cu's website WhiteOnRiceCouple.com

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