Steamrollers, dreamers, and elitists: Alice Waters on 60 Minutes

On Sunday evening, 60 Minutes featured a lengthy segment on Alice Waters and her role as major advocate for Slow Food. To be sure, it is a big step for the mainstream recognition of the food movement, but it hasn’t come without a lot of debate in response. Within hours of the episode airing on television, critics had already jumped on certain behaviors and statements as proof of Waters’ elitism, while boosters shot back with rebuttals. Most of this controversy, it would seem, is from within the ranks of the sustainable food movement and illustrates the ongoing debate about how to make good food accessible to everyone.

As Slow Food has become increasingly engaged with food politics and issues of social justice, its adherents have also had a difficult time agreeing on how best to frame the discussion. Alice Waters, as one of the most visible public intellectuals of the food movement, has clearly articulated one approach. When pressed on the subject of elitism, Waters’ stance has been to say that good food is a right to be had by all, rather than a privilege to be enjoyed by the few. Often, as she did in the 60 Minutes interview, she’s elaborated on this thought by dissecting the choices people make about their diets. In her estimation, there are people who choose other luxuries in place of good-quality food. While her statements are partly true and well-intentioned, she’s often delivered them while spoon-codling an egg in the hearth of her wood-fired home oven. And that’s not a euphemism.

Her critics, both within and outside of the food movement, have attacked these statements for similar reasons. Essentially, they point to the privilege inherent in her leisurely, garden-picked meals and the condescension implicit in criticizing people for purchasing “Nike shoes, two pairs.” For people who disagree with Waters’ approach, there is a belief that she overlooks the structural injustices that prevent even well-intentioned individuals from accessing fresh food and having the time to prepare real meals. Her critics would say that her message of fair access is not incorrect, but the delivery is hard-to-swallow when it’s accompanied by  video of her purchasing heirloom produce at a premium (though likely fair for the farmer) price. Many people in the food movement would rather Ms. Waters drop her affect and cook her eggs in a frying pan. But then she wouldn’t be Alice Waters, would she?

What most intrigues me about this debate is that it all comes down to rhetoric. Waters is criticized not necessarily for her democratic ideals, but for the language she chooses to use in arguing them. And, in turn, food advocates lambast journalists and interviewers for their leading – dare I say “gotcha” – questions and their highly edited sound bites. It’s important to remember that Alice Waters is a personality, in the truest sense of the word. And because of this, any coverage she receives will not delve into the nuances of the broader food movement, but rather will highlight her own quirks and characteristics. If you listen to the phrases that 60 Minutes used in describing her, it’s fairly revealing of just how character-driven and selective journalism can be.

For being a tireless and dedicated advocate for her beliefs, Waters is branded a “steamroller.” Because she imagines an healthier, better future, she is dismissed as a “dreamer.” And because of her lifestyle and word choice, she is condemned as an “elitist.” (People who believe in Waters don’t fair much better, being labeled everything from disciple to accolyte – it sounds like we’re a cult!)

Should any of this really discredit her message, though? When you strip away the debate over Waters’ media savvy, it’s clear that this is a real coup for the food movement. Can you recall another feature interview with such a high-profile food figure on a program like 60 Minutes? In the effort for good food, there is room for Alice Waters, even when she isn’t totally “on message.” So take a look at the video of the segment, and if you have any thoughts on her treatment, feel free to weigh in!

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(As a side note, I think the best line of the entire piece was: “We would like to warn President Obama that the steamroller is on its way.” We can only hope.)

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