Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea
By Alice Waters
Review by Chris Garbutt
Those who know about Alice Waters are familiar with her celebrity. Chez Panisse, her restaurant in Berkeley, California, is one of the most famous in America. The restaurant was started in the sixties, based on the idea of making good French food with local ingredients. She’s an advocate for local eating, and the author of eight cookbooks, including The Art of Simple Food, which sits on the prime cookbook shelf in my kitchen.
What you might not know is that before becoming a chef and foodie hero, Waters was a Montessori schoolteacher. About 15 years ago, she brought together these two careers, which is what Edible Schoolyard is about.
Waters and some dedicated staff at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley decided that it was time for the crumbling facility to be rehabilitated. The school sat on a relatively large piece of land, much of it covered by concrete. The concrete was torn up to make way for a garden, which grew year by year, and was supplemented by a renovated outbuilding that became the school’s kitchen classroom. Students were given the responsibility, for credit, for tending the garden and cooking the fruits (and vegetables) of their labour.
“It’s a way of making sure that children grow up feeling the soil with their own fingers, harvesting the bounty in the American sunshine, and watching their own hands make the kind of beautiful, inexpensive food that can nourish the body and the spirit,” Waters writes.
I’m not sure what the book is trying to be, exactly. The text is pretty thin, though the story is pretty inspiring. There are pictures of the kids working the garden, and cooking in the kitchen. There are a few recipes – cucumber-lime cooler, carrot-raisin salad, spring vegetable ragout, bread salad, red bean stew and potato smash with kale (that’s all of them). There are also images of the children’s reflections on their experience eating, which even for a food-lover like myself, provide a stark reminder of how out of touch we can be with where our food comes from. These notes are moving in their transformative power.
But at 80 pages, I was left wanting more. More stories, more recipes, or more photographs. It feels like a coffee-table book, but it’s not big enough to display. Waters has moved me here, but not quite enough for a prized place on my bookshelf.