Dinner with Alice

I had dinner with Alice Waters last Sunday night.

When I first went to Alice’s restaurant Chez Panisse back in the late 1980s, the local-food “movement” was anything but. If as a restaurateur you had good sources nearby — for produce, for seafood, for meat — you kept it pretty quiet. There was often not enough to go around, or you were seen as a little “out there.”

Today, we love local, and we talk about it A LOT. We’re swinging back hard from all the processing we so revered in the early-t0-mid 20th century, when Tang was king.

Some of us saw this movement beginning and helped it grow. I worked for restaurants and for retailers that actively sought and marketed local, fresh foods. I worked for a nonprofit that strives to keep the best farmland in America in farming — not growing tract houses or industrial strip malls.

Around the table that Sunday night were 40 people who are all somehow participating in getting good food onto plates, whether those are hundred-dollar plates at fancy events or hundreds of plates for people who have nothing. Everyone at our big table that night believes that America can eat better, can cook with real food, can raise children who know where their food comes from and what to do with it.

The dinner was a benefit for two great organizations here in Washington, Martha’s Table and D.C. Central Kitchen. These organizations didn’t exist when Alice Waters founded Chez Panisse. There are many other organizations — for-profit, nonprofit and social enterprises — that have cropped up in the past forty years to help feed the country well. Wise people are using the marketplace, advocacy, philanthropy, education and many other disciplines to fill America’s plate with real food.

It helps, tremendously, to lay your fingers on a touchstone every once in a while. Alice is one such touchstone; I imagine that there are human touchstones for every cause around the world. In the end, if you’re working in the realm of “making good food,” it all comes down to dinner — sitting around a table, trading ideas with people, eating well. Sunday night’s dinner was downright magical because we had the REAL Alice to talk to us and answer our questions.

Who’s your touchstone, and can you get him or her to the table with you soon?