The Problem With Alice Waters and the “Slow Food” Movement

"Slow food" is good, it is elite, but it is not for the masses

The Problem With Alice Waters and the “Slow Food” Movement
Alice Waters hosting a dinner at Viader Vineyards in Napa, California, on June 4, 2007. (David Sifry / Wikimedia Commons)

Alice Waters, the doyenne of farm-to-table cooking, organic farming, and all things California cuisine, has long been a celebrated figure. Her brand of industry-defying, Berkeley-inspired, slow food idolatry has captured the minds of both the culinary world and many progressives. But Waters and the ideology she has been so instrumental in constructing have also clashed with many traditionally leftist goals.

That’s something some conservatives have picked up on; in 2008, philosopher John Schwenkler authored a provocative article for the American Conservative arguing that Waters’s social and political agenda ought to be embraced by the modern conservative movement.

America’s industrialized and mass-produced food system, Schwenkler argued, was a product of big government, overregulation, rent seeking, and subsidies. Water’s vision, by contrast, “binds us most fundamentally to place, family, market, and community,” representing, Schwenkler claimed, “a crucial step in the restoration of culture” and “the kinds of projects that will build community; revitalize regional economies; encourage stable, healthy families; and instill the kinds of civic attitudes that make centralized government appear burdensome.”

The essay provoked a few outraged responses on the Right and was mostly ignored by the Left. In contrast with Wendell Berry’s agrarian nostalgia, Waters’s explicitly progressive brand of food politics, tied up with “Berkeley in the ’60s” atmospherics, has never attracted much interest on the Right.

Today, Waters, due to the prolonged success of her Chez Panisse — a Berkeley mainstay for expensive, “ingredient-driven” cuisine and one of the United States’ most influential restaurants — remains highly influential. She has, however, had to contend with more pushback from her erstwhile progressive allies. Waters responded to concerns that her vision for America’s food system was elitist in the New York Times Magazine by vociferously objecting that she “cannot compromise when it comes to wholesomeness.”

Her use of the word “wholesome” was not in any way ironic. Waters’s rapturous description of pounding pesto by hand, contrasted, in the same interview, with an imagined Amazon factory worker stuffing themselves with fast food and store-bought cookies, makes clear that what animates Waters’s food politics is not inclusiveness, equity, or environmentalism but rather disgust: at industrialization, cheap food, and by implication, the masses who depend on both.

“Fast food has separated work and pleasure,” Waters instructs her interviewer. But what Waters calls work would be unrecognizable to America’s working classes. She describes how she and her adult daughter, Fanny, would

both be working, and she’d say — at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon — “Is it time yet?” Then we’d toast this delicious loaf of Acme Bread’s. . . . Fanny immediately goes to the toaster oven, and I go and get the garlic — fresh garlic — and a great bottle of olive oil. We cook that toast till it’s dark and then rub it with garlic and pour some olive oil on it and just eat it there.

Of course, while she and Fanny were sheltered at home during the pandemic, cutting off work at 3 PM to commune over fancy toast, millions of working people were toiling away in warehouses and distribution centers, at great risk to their health and well-being.

Waters goes on to defend costly food in the name of fair pay and climate change. But it is all window dressing for what is, at bottom, an aesthetic project, one that is about as far from a working-class politics as one could imagine. And while it is easy enough to poke fun at, the ease with which it has been integrated into mainstream progressive politics raises uncomfortable questions.

Let Them Eat Clean

In her famous Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, the anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that the ways in which cultures defined pollution were often ways of delineating in-groups from out-groups. Ideas about what is “pure” or “clean” change drastically depending on who you’re talking to. Who and what was clean or dirty, pure or contaminated, healthy or sickly, according to Douglas’s work, determined who belonged and who did not, what was sacred and what was profane.

Wholesomeness, in the way that Waters uses it, works, like “cleanliness” or “purity,” to differentiate culturally significant groups of people into those who are acceptable and the “others” who are not. Wholesome food is clean, healthy, and definitionally untethered to industry. Mass-produced and processed food, by contrast, is contaminated. Those who consume it are unhealthy, sickly, and exploited.

Waters’s construction of wholesomeness and purity was not always in fashion. Not so long ago, industrial-processed foods were considered healthier and more sanitary. Mass-produced, convenient, abundant, and cheap food was a blessing for the rising working classes of the early and mid-twentieth century and was broadly celebrated for the benefits it provided. Mass production has allowed for almost a century of declining real food prices in the United States, furthermore, despite stagnating wage growth. Today, the average American can purchase about three to four times the amount of food with a single hour of wages than in 1950.

Yet food prices remain high enough that the difference in the costs of food for wealthy and poorer Americans remains stark. In 2019, for example, the poorest 20 percent of Americans spent about 35 percent of their income on food, whereas the richest quintile spent only about 7 percent of their total income on food. High food prices means that lower-income individuals and families are forced to prioritize food purchases over other expenditures like education, transportation, energy, and shelter. In other words, while the richest may bemoan cheap food, the reality is that the United States has not yet gone far enough to make food as cheap and abundant as possible.

So, where does the animosity toward mass-produced food come from? It was only in the postwar era — among Waters’s generation, the first to come of age amid such abundance — that public sentiment began to turn against cheap, abundant, and processed food. Waters grounds her origin story in 1960s-era Berkeley radicalism for both romantic and political reasons. Doing so allows her to situate her food and her politics in both the idealism of that era and to connect to that period’s worthy demands for political liberation, racial justice, and environmental protection.

In 1971, Waters took those ideals, combined them with an interest in hosting guests, and opened Chez Panisse. The kitchen at Chez Panisse found its groove in the reframing of classic French peasant cooking made with local ingredients as the “clean” and “wholesome” alternative to the dirty food produced for the masses. The Berkeley restaurant quickly grew to prominence and made hegemonic the idea that “clean eating” had to mean unprocessed, rustic, but still expensive food for wealthy consumers.

Chez Panisse’s commercial success led to other ventures. In 1995, Waters launched the Edible Schoolyard Project followed closely by the Chez Panisse Foundation in 1996, which garlanded her nostalgic gastronomic project with a veneer of progressive crusading. Henceforth, the pleasures of Waters’s table would be in service not of feeding the well-heeled liberals who flocked to Chez Panisse but of instructing the poor and saving the planet.

It’s not fancy food, Waters would say, it’s “nourishment” for the body, the soul, and the world.

The Wholesome PMC

Despite its leftist pretenses, Waters’s food politics is the politics not of the people, in the way that the Old Left defined it, but rather of what Barbara Ehrenreich, in her Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, dubbed the professional-managerial class (PMC). The PMC sought to differentiate itself from the working class through cultural ideas, even as many of its members also embraced egalitarian cultural values and identified themselves as champions of the less fortunate.

Food and environmental values have long figured centrally in the construction of these class distinctions, which, Ehrenreich argued, are fluid, changing, and shifting over time. The 1970s saw a kind of simplistic austerity come into vogue among the chattering classes. The 1980s brought with it an “embrace of affluence” that saw young professionals spending money on conspicuous displays of consumer activity — piles of cocaine, imported caviar, and expensive French wines.

But no matter the specific signifiers of the era, middle- and upper-class consumption patterns are read — and specifically formulated — as reactions to working-class habits, styles, and cultures. As Waters’s food philosophy reached the mainstream in the 1980s and ’90s and the organic movement blossomed, cultural signals moved again, taking us closer to where we are today. By the early 2000s, the dominant food ideology of wealthy Americans — with some distinct exceptions — centered on local and organic production, minimal processing, and slow food.

According to many leading lights of the contemporary food movement, this shift in elite preferences and aesthetics carries with it the possibility of new relations of production: that is, if the entire population would only embrace organic vegetable production, grass-fed beef, and more time in the kitchen, the horrors of modern capitalist agriculture could be overthrown and replaced by virtuous, unalienated yeoman farmers the world over. But there’s a tell that these claims are not at all what they seem: They imagine that a food aesthetic — adopted first by wealthy, highly educated, liberal professionals and grounded in a romanticized ideal of the past that is cleansed of its racist, patriarchal, and deeply inequitable legacy — might organize a fundamental egalitarian shift in class relations, rather than emerging from new class relations.

For Waters, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and other anti-modern foodies, anything that conforms to the ideals of industrialized agriculture is inherently unclean and therefore unwholesome. Importantly, this also means that anything that is or can be massively produced must also be unclean and unwholesome. This limitation of wholesomeness to only small-scale food production essentially tarnishes anything that could, by definition, be the food of the masses.

Slow is Low

The poet Tony Hoagland once wrote that “nostalgia is a blank check for a weak mind.” It is also deadly to serious efforts toward progress and equity. A progressivism that took food systems seriously would reject small-is-beautiful green homilies and antiquarian demands to return to food systems that predate the modern working class. There is no opportunity for worker power in agrarian relations in which farms are small, undercapitalized, unproductive, labor intensive and technology poor. Farm labor groups don’t even attempt to organize workers on small farms, nor do regulators bother regulating them.

Nor does slow food, produced laboriously by those growing it, processing it, and cooking it, serve the vast majority of workers laboring outside of the agricultural sector. For many, arguably most, Americans, the time and effort it would take to practice the “wholesome” labor of cooking is impossible, unattractive, or simply too costly.

Prior to COVID-19, the average employed American worked eight hours and commuted almost an hour each workday. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. On average, individuals without a high school diploma or college degree work more hours a day than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. And, in high-cost urban centers — like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco — low-paid workers have a greater commuter burden than higher-paid middle- and upper-class professionals.

For many Americans who may have the time outside of work to eat like Waters or Pollan, spending hours a day or whole weekend days preparing meals is a poor use of their time. It is, as Waters clearly understands, added work. Personal farming, gardening, and the rest of the slow food ideals resemble the labor that Americans jumped at the chance to leave behind decades ago, when millions sought out opportunities in urban settings.

There is something especially sinister about telling people that the way to eat healthfully, morally, and sustainably requires more work — especially when slow food really does little to ensure a healthy, moral, or sustainable food system, nor one that treats farm and food-processing labor any better. In fact, small farms are as likely and maybe more likely to treat workers poorly, and often rely on unpaid family labor to remain productive. It may seem counterintuitive, but larger agricultural producers typically receive greater labor oversight and are more amenable to collective bargaining than smaller producers due to public scrutiny.

But because slow food and similar movements place the onus on the individual and their relationship with food and nature, the actual workers who provide that food get erased and replaced with a feel-good story about local production and individual liberation from the difficulties of modern life.

To make matters worse, slow food is not actually the most environmentally friendly or climate-conscious choice. Advocates of alternative food, localism, and the like often suggest that smaller-scale production is less damaging to the environment, pointing to the vast impact that Big Agriculture has on the environment. And while agriculture large and small has many problems, the primary reason that Big Ag in places like the United States accounts for so much environmental harm is because it accounts for the vast majority of agricultural output and land use.

Small farms and organic production typically have lower yields, require greater land use, and account for more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of food produced. If the global food system took up Michael Pollan’s aesthetic, there’d be catastrophic consequences in terms of the loss of wildlands, the farmification of vast populated areas, and most likely, similar or worse ecological and environmental consequences to conventional agriculture today due to widespread application of organic fertilizers — also known as shit.

The world could not actually grow enough food to feed 10 billion with small-scale, low-productivity, labor-intensive agricultural systems. But that may be the point of the Alice Waters–style food movement. Slow food is good. It is elite. It cannot be for the masses.

The Alternative is Real

What would a proletarian food movement worthy of the name actually advocate? First, it would reorient its agenda toward the needs of working people and reject the aesthetic demands of the PMC. That requires both better wages and working conditions for those working within the agricultural sectors and cheap food for those working outside it.

The solution proposed by Waters and other progressive food advocates is that food ought to cost more, thereby allowing farmers to pay better wages and spend more on ecological amenities. But this creates a false conflict between consumers and workers. A proletarian food politics for the Left would celebrate cheap food for the masses. It would acknowledge the brutality of agricultural work and would embrace a food system that supported workers’ struggles at the point of production and used technology in a way that improved the lot of ordinary workers.

A just food system, whether a fully socialist one controlled by workers or a social democratic one merely shaped by them, requires scale. It must be well capitalized and technological in order to support decent wages and work conditions for those who labor in it.

None of this would have been particularly novel or controversial for the Old Left. It has only been in the last few decades when many self-described progressives have convinced themselves that small-scale, decentralized, low-productivity, and antiquarian food systems might hold the key to equity and sustainability, throwing out the technological, large-scale, and high-productivity baby with the corporate bathwater.

The long-term evolution of food systems toward larger-scale, more technological, and less labor-intensive production has been a boon for the environment as well. Three-quarters of global deforestation occurred prior to the industrialization of agriculture, as low-productivity food systems required not only vast populations to spend most of their time growing food but vast amounts of land. There is no shortage of environmental consequences associated with our present, increasingly globalized food system. But it also allows 8 billion people to eat more caloric and protein-rich diets, uses land and many other inputs far more efficiently than preindustrial food systems, and has allowed increasing numbers of people around the world to liberate themselves from the brutality and poverty of agrarian life.

Nostalgia among the PMC for an honest day’s work on the farm is precisely the sort of thing that only people distant from the realities of physical labor can advocate. As long as food activists remain wedded to an ideology that conceives of mass production as unclean, impure, and unwholesome, it will be a dead end for those looking for progress and justice.