We were infinite. We were kids of the 80s, reared on greed and paranoia, and fed a steady diet of John Hughes movies, David Bowie LP’s, and flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled down. Closing our eyes, we crooned “Heroes,” and our collective shouts and emphatic foot stomps were louder than bombs. We were note-passers, photo-takers, huggers, and friendship-book makers. Back then, we took ten minutes to set up a photo that gave the suggestion of being candid, because we owned film cameras and felt a certain kind of thrill when we developed our rolls of film; we wondered if our 4x6 glossies would be the catalog of our beautifully captured moment, or whether our midnight marauding would come out as a blurred scene, faces double-exposed, or friends fallen out of the frame. We also made mix-tapes that laid our heart down on the table, as if it were the greatest hand ever played. Our breath quickened when the song played on the radio — sometimes it was Led Zeppelin, The Smiths, Joy Division, David Bowie, U2, Nirvana, or Sioux and the Banshees — and hoped that we could capture the first few bars, the opening guitar strum and vocals. Invariably, we created tapes of songs half-played with our awkward, mumbling voices forming the shape of the word we could never say, that word being love.
While the old guard called us apathetic, lost, a generation reduced to a letter of the alphabet, we loved ferociously, lived idealistically; we were determined to be better than what had come before. More important, we were present, connected, our imaginations open, like salt poured over a wound that would never close. Little did we know that our hands were powerful instruments; ours was a tactile age. We picked up the phone, walked to one another’s rooms and wrote long letters, deliberating on how many stamps to affix on the envelopes. In retrospect, I wish we wouldn’t have taken it all for granted.
Then the computer and cellular phone promised an alternative world that was virtual and efficient, and suddenly, we felt finite.
The pictures we once snapped with our film cameras became old photographs, reduced to a hashtag on a particular day of the week when we celebrated a “throwback” or a “turn back.” Our sepia memories were reduced to something pithy and fleeting, a photograph scrolled past — we were now one of many followed and fawned over by strangers. The mix-tapes we so assiduously composed, with their hand-painted covers and songs so deliberately and painfully chosen, became tracks we skipped with a press of a button. Our hands became trained to click and swipe instead of remain and linger. We were a generation in constant motion, on the verge of frenzy. We found ourselves lost, as the elders predicted, in a cloud. Our bodies became a thing that could be tracked and Judd Nelson’s singular, rebellious fist pump was reduced to a million-tweet drone — witticisms packed in a 140-characters or fewer. The sum was so much less than every single one of its parts.
Maybe that’s why I was drawn so acutely to Alice Water’s latest cookbook, The Art of Simple Food II, and its call to cultivate a relationship with the land. We crave connection — to the earth, to one another; this is what makes us human. Stanley Kubrick once mused that children have this boundless sense of wonder that they lose once they become aware of death and decay, when the images of dark begin to impinge on their consciousness, drowning out all the light. Yet, what makes life worth living, every moment of every day, is an awareness of this dark, this disconnection, and a desire to ferret out the light and get closer to the things that are tangible and real. The notion that we can put down our phones, close our laptops, and receive life as it happens, in the moment in which it’s lived, is when we break ranks — become infinite again — because that is the moment in which we pay attention to the “tiny sprouts as they push up from the soil, blue borage flowers reaching to bees and birds, the burgeoning harvest as it ripens.” (Alice Waters, Introduction)
Imagine, if for one day, we paid attention to the details, instead of skimming the surface of things. We would feel connected to the whole cycle of life, and Waters vociferously believes that cultivating a connection can be “as simple as putting a seed in the ground and watching it grow.”
Whether we grow buttery lettuce from the confines of our fire escapes and dollhouse apartments, or tend to leafy greens and herbs in a verdant garden, or lug sacks to the local farmer’s market, we want to know how food is reared, prepared, and composted; how it creates a kinetic, unbreakable connection between us and that which we’ve harvested. And if we believe that the food we prepare is an extension of our best selves — a beating heart plucked out, murmuring, This meal shows that I love you this much, This meal is my mix-tape for you — this bond we create between us and our food and how that bond inexplicably ties us to others, is a blanket that blinds our phone’s push alerts and smothers the ring that threatens to sever that connection.
To say that I fell raptuously in love with Waters’s sequel to her seminal The Art of Simple Food — where she delivered a repertoire of classic, approachable recipes that focus on local ingredients and flavors —would be an understatement. From her New Kitchen Garden, the backyard of Chez Panisse, Waters further inspires us to explore, through over 200 primarily vegetable-based recipes and responsibly raised meats and fish, the textures, flavors and genesis of seasonal cooking. Each section is devoted to an element in the garden (e.g. lettuce and greens, vine vegetables, underground roots and tubers) and offers not only the genus of the ingredient, but ways in which it can be prepared in the most unexpected of ways (kale and kumquats, anyone?). Waters’s directions err on the side of simplicity, and you’ll feel as though your older sister is whispering in your ear as you bake, holding your hand as you whisk. Every single page is rife with Waters’s passion for the produce she loves and the sustainable farmers who create them.
After making over ten recipes across the seasons, I’m steadily amassing a healthy, conscious index of mainstay recipes that spark looks of awe and stories shared at dinner parties that are more memorable than the Instagram photos we took of our experience.
Recently, I hosted a dinner party where I put a considerable amount of Waters’s recipes to the test. The crowd was a mix of our lettered generations, X and Y, and we are the sort that is constantly connected. We check in, tweet, ‘gram, and tag one another in photos. We have become the sort who becomes part of the endless scroll. Over bottles of Sancerre, I started out with a few slices of blueberry butter cake. Odd, I know, but dessert has this uncanny ability to force us to abandon our technological appendages and turns us into kids who always begged for a meal that started with dessert. Within moments, my friends were covered in crumbs and wild berries, and dove blissfully into two pizzas using Waters’s idiot-proof pizza dough. I topped my simple pies with sirloin, arugula, kale pesto (mint almond pesto — another gem lifted from Waters’s travels to Puerto Rico, where the herb was abundant and fragrant) and sundried tomatoes, and offered up another version with figs and proscuitto.
Just when I thought that my friends would keel over from conversations that spanned books — Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and Kate Christensen’s evocative, raw and beautiful food memoir, Blue Plate Special, were the buzz—films, female atrocities overseas, the possibility of second acts, and the quiet everyday terrors of American politics, I noticed something odd. We were two hours into dinner and no one had reached for his [or her] phone. No one tapped, scrolled, or text’d. We were present and ready for pie.
Over a crisp Chardonnay and glasses of pomegranate-blueberry juice, I served up two show-stopping galettes. The tender, buttery crust juxtaposed with the juicy, seasonal fruit, momentarily scorched our mouths but we didn’t care. We were our younger selves again, indulging in pies when the world was telling us to juice, spin and avoid anything gleaming white. I played a little David Bowie and we ended the evening watching Winona Ryder movies, perhaps a little embarrassed, slightly aghast over the fact that our Doc Martens were so scuffed and our flannels a little too threadbare.
Perhaps this is the greatest gift that Alice Waters unwittingly gave me — the ability to bring my friends back to a time when gadgets didn’t threaten or inflict heartbreak or anxiety. For a few blissful hours, we might not have composted a garden (and Waters will show you how to do this, even if you are a moron with a spade), but there was a harvest; there was a connection. We wrote ourselves a story that was larger than any social network could ever hope to recount.