I am thrilled to be able to share with you the inspiring speech given by Alice Waters when accepting the 2015 Alex Szekely Humanitarian Award at the Annual Convention of the International Spa Association.
Thank you very much. And thank you Deborah for that beautiful introduction… I truly appreciate the recognition. And I’m particularly touched to receive this award since it is named after Alex who was—not only family to some of you—but, as most of you know, a true visionary who dedicated so much of his life to improving other people’s lives.
I must say I was a bit surprised when I first heard you wanted to honor me. I think of myself as a cook and a teacher and I didn’t quite get the connection. But then I reflected on my first trip to Rancho La Puerta many years ago—too many years ago! And I remembered how I was so struck with the beauty and tranquility of the place, of course. And the warm hospitality. But what made a bigger impression on me was the deep ecological understanding starting to take hold there.
Deborah had asked me to teach a cooking class with my friends Ruth Reichl and Marian Cunningham. And we all saw firsthand how intense the engagement with the biodiversity was and how sensitively and carefully the land was being stewarded. There was a kitchen garden—in the middle of the desert! I realized very quickly that Deborah and her family were wanting to do a version of what we were doing up in Berkeley at Chez Panisse but in a slightly different, much larger way. They were wanting to make people comfortable, for sure, but they were also wanting to open them up, take care of them on a profound level, help them discover better ways of being from way down inside themselves. And they had the sense that the best way to do this, like we were discovering in Berkeley, was through the senses—with the purest and most authentic ingredients and methods.
That trip to Rancho La Puerta awakened me to the broader possibilities that spas could provide: the education, in a sense, that they could provide. So, thinking back on that, I understood the connection. We’re all trying to do the same thing here…
Lately, I’ve been working on a memoir and interestingly enough, one of the experiences I keep returning to in my life is the first time I ever went into a bathhouse. It was in Turkey when I was 25 and traveling like a college student, camping all the way. In Turkey at the time you didn’t see many women on the streets and getting around was pretty rough, to say the least. But once you went underground into the sanctuary of the bathhouse, a whole different atmosphere pervaded: a whole different set of values were in place.
First of all, it was just women, so I felt free and un-judged and without the need for defenses. And the architecture of the place—with its alcoves and tiles and fountains of running water—supported these feelings. It was so soothing and peaceful in stark contrast to the aggressive, gritty, hustle and bustle outside. A convivial and relaxed social atmosphere naturally flourished in the bathhouse. There were all kinds of women, all ages, talking to each other, relating. And there were children running freely around laughing and playing. It felt so communal and safe. So connected…And, of course, there were those amazing people who worked there who really knew how to handle people’s bodies!
But the thing that struck me the most was something that happened at the very end of my visit. I was sitting with my clothes on in the lobby transitioning from the peaceful atmosphere where I’d been, into the more chaotic world I could see outside. The attendants were saying in Turkish (and then translated for me), “Take your time. Take it slow… relax. Catch your breath.”
And just then, a woman came up to me and offered me—believe it or not—a ripe, red apple. Her gesture seemed to be saying, “Eat this. It will help.” So, I bit into the apple and it was, of course, delicious. Eating that apple, savoring it there in that transitional space, not only nourished me but it grounded me in ways I hadn’t expected. It allowed me to digest what I was feeling and integrate the experience completely. Tasting that apple engaged my senses in a more visceral, energized way. Eating it I felt completely alive, solidly rooted and whole, as if I’d been rewired. I came out of that bathhouse not only replenished physically but with a deeper understanding of—and I dare say connection to?—my interior self and the culture around me. And that apple had a lot to do with it.
Food has such an important role to play—in our lives, obviously, but also in our places of rejuvenation. When people are open and relaxed and in touch with the deeper parts of their being, like I was, food can meet them there, galvanizing their experience, deepening it and opening them up in such a profound way that their sense of who they are actually changes, their sense of what being alive feels like transforms. I believe food helps the bio-energetic changes that have been happening in a spa or wellness setting solidify in one’s being, so that the changes become permanent in them, structural so to speak, affecting their future behavior.
It’s an amazing moment, actually, when someone is open and relaxed, when the dead layers of living have been stripped away. It’s a perfect time for them to be Edibly Educated—as I would say! Introducing them to something really tasty and special at this moment will resonate inside them for a long, long time. People always think it’s the food at Chez Panisse that they’re responding to. And it is the food—don’t get me wrong. But it’s more than that. It’s what I’m talking about here. It’s how the food opens them up to everything else around them.
But for this kind of thing to work the food needs to be real. It can’t be fast food or overworked or artificial on any level. It needs to be vital. Locally sourced. Just picked. Seasonal, of the moment…organic, of course. It’s the aliveness and purity of food—the chi—that ignites the aliveness and purity within us. It’s the subtlety and complexity of real taste—not taste covered up or accentuated with salt or sugar or preservatives—that excites the internal systems within us to reorganize in healthier, more vibrant patterns. A persimmon in the fall, a strawberry in the spring, a peach in the summer...it doesn’t take much. And the right food can usually be found right outside your door or at a nearby market. Real food, given at the right moment, fans the flames of the regenerative fire lurking inside us.
And it doesn’t need to be fancy. What was so great about that experience in Turkey was that it wasn’t rarified. It wasn’t something only a few people could afford. It was an apple! Luxurious, for sure, but it wasn’t a luxury in the sense of being overly precious or pricey. I think it’s a primal desire of people to have something simple and natural. It’s a craving. They’re satisfied with this purely earthbound and delicious taste. Filled up with it.
When things are done with purity and simplicity, they become more ecologically sound, too. They naturally fall into balance. Maybe some of you have discovered this. Water is conserved. Less towels and papers are used. Less garbage is created. Less electricity is used. Less pollution…It’s what I remember most about the experience at Rancho La Puerta and other places I’ve visited over the years—the simplicity, the authenticity, the integrity…these were the real luxuries! And the lessons I took home into my own life.
It’s another thing that’s great about food. When someone has a memory of a deep, transformational experience in one place—like I did with that apple—they want to repeat it again in their daily lives. And they’ll remember that taste and search it out outside the spa to try and rekindle those feelings. So, food becomes a kind of catalyst for the kinds of deeper changes I think we’re all trying to foster and want our clients and customers to foster on their own.
It may sound kind of Romantic now but that time in Turkey was the first time I really felt the power of—and the necessity of—places that rejuvenate us: social places that rejuvenate us. Like Japanese baths. Hungarian baths. Places woven into the social structure of our communities, where everyone can partake in a ritualized pause in their day. These places help us know where we are in time and space. They help break down social barriers. They help us digest our experience, becoming more connected and human. I don’t think I need to argue this point here!
As much as I’m caring about the family meal and school lunch these days, I am yearning for quality places of replenishment—affordable, vital places of replenishment. I think if we all stay the course—working with sincerity, purity and authenticity—we’re going to foster ecological balance and all our customers and clients will continue to benefit and learn what it truly feels like to be alive. They’ll think they’re coming in to relax but, like I was in Turkey, they’ll be reborn.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
PHOTO: President Obama presents the 2014 National Humanities Medal to Alice Waters during an East Room ceremony at the White House on Thursday. Alice Waters was honored for celebrating the bond between the ethical and the edible as a chef, author and advocate. Originally published on NPR's the salt