WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne
If you’re like me, and you’ve ever been to a farm-to-fork restaurant, you’ll know how it pretty much ruins all other restaurants for you. When you’ve had a salad with homegrown lettuce, or a burger with fresh meat, or pasta with scratch-made noodles, you’ll never want to touch fast food ever again. But how did the foodie’s paradise that is a farm-to-table restaurant come to be? In this blog, we’re taking it back to the seventies to explore the history of sustainable eating.
Flashback to 1971, with a trailblazer named Alice Waters. A well-traveled woman, Alice had lived and studied in France, Turkey, and England, learning from experienced chefs and developing a taste for fine meals. Taking a look around her home in Berkeley, California, she realized that what it was lacking wasn’t culture, or arts, or social revolution—it was lacking fine restaurants. From her time in France, she learned that good food comes from good ingredients—and in the era of American TV-Dinners and microwave meals, Alice knew that her idea was more important than ever. So with the help of her friend Lindsey Shere, she began her first step into a life that would change American dining forever.
”When I opened up Chez Panisse, I was only thinking about taste. And in doing that, I ended up at the doorstep of [organic farmers],” Alice was once quoted as saying. But have you ever cooked a meal made of entirely organic ingredients? As someone who only eats organic at home, I know that there’s a ridiculous price difference between grass-fed, non-GMO, organic beef and Hamburger Helper. Let’s do a small experiment to display just how much of a financial struggle she was undertaking.
Say you want a burger, and you have no regard for health whatsoever, so you decide to pack up and head to McDonalds. On average, a Big Mac costs $3.99. So, one trip out to buy a burger costs around four dollars with tax. Keep that in mind.
Say the next day, you want another burger, but this time you want to make it yourself, using fresh and organic ingredients! (Good for you.) So you hit up my local farmers’ market (and also Publix) and buy the choicest organic ingredients. (Disclaimer: I recognize that some of these ingredients can make WAY more than just one burger, so this is the price for one trip to buy these ingredients.)
One-fourth-pound of locally raised, organic, grass-fed beef is: $1.75
One organic sweet onion: $1.25
One bag of locally-grown organic romaine lettuce: $5.00
One jar of organic pickles: $5.35
One package of organic American cheese: $4.99
One jar of organic avocado oil mayonnaise: $8.99
One loaf of organic, fresh-baked wheat bread (Sorry. No such thing as healthy Hawaiian buns.): $5.50
THUS! To make a Big Mac at home, your grand total would be $29.83. Might I remind you that an actual Big Mac costs $3.99? Drumroll please…there is a $25.84 price difference between a homemade organic meal and a fast food burger!
And then multiply that $29.83 to feed a restaurant full of people. Sounds insane, right? There’s no way Alice Waters could make a profit, right?
I mean…right. Waters’ baby, Chez Panisse, didn’t turn a profit for the first eight years of operation. She relied on loans from her friends and the good graces of the local banks who believed in her mission. But, at last, word spread about her revolutionary restaurant, the concept of “slow eating” that was in such contrast to the typical American “grab-and-go” meal. And people showed up, flooding in from all over the country and helping Alice Waters into financial stability. Once her restaurant had its legs under it, the hours she spent working over-time could now be devoted to other activities! Sleep, perhaps?
Not for Alice Waters. She promptly began giving her time (and her food!) to other local organizations that fit her vision. She visited prisons and cooked fresh food for the inmates, she planted gardens in poor communities, and she founded a new project: the Edible Schoolyard. In 1995, she planted a garden in the schoolyard of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary school and began teaching underprivileged children how to harvest, cook, and know where their food came from. And to celebrate the restaurant’s 25th anniversary, Alice founded the Chez Panisse Foundation, which funded agricultural programs across the country to allow them to plant gardens and teach cooking classes of their own!
Flash forward to 2021, when more than 1,200 schools have paired up with local farms to serve fresh produce to their students—but that’s not the only impact Alice Waters has made on the American food scene! Farm-to-table restaurants are opening left and right across the country, many of them in my area. And as someone who is incredibly passionate about food, I’m especially grateful to Alice Waters for her resilience and for pursuing her dream, even when she was out of money.
Now, I can’t list every single farm fresh restaurant in the United States. I wouldn’t know where to start and ain’t nobody got time to read all that. But I CAN tell you about two of my personal favorites, which are farm-to-forking-delicious.
The Dotted Lime, in Columbia, Tennessee, is quite possibly my favorite restaurant of all time. Not only are all of their ingredients organic, but also their entire establishment is 100% gluten-free, soy free, and nut free! They get all of their produce and meat from local farms and import the things they can’t grow from top-notch facilities across the country. Every time I go there, they’ve introduced a new seasonal item, or something the chef has dreamed up the week before, or something customers request. And, they have a LEGIT Big Mac.
Backcountry Burger Bar in Bozeman, Montana (try saying THAT five times fast), is a restaurant so fabulous that my family still talks about it constantly. Last summer, on a trip to the West, we literally ate there three times. We touched down in Bozeman and drove to Backcountry to grab lunch…and then ate there for dinner that night…and then lunch the next day. All of their bison is locally raised and processed, their beef grass-fed, their potatoes locally grown—it was a dream. My family raved about their bison, and though I didn’t eat meat at the time, I had their (soy-free!) plant-based patty with housemade kimchi and an egg. I honestly could cry, it was that delicious.
And next time you’re in Fly, Tennessee and feel like visiting the best farm on the planet, stop by The Farm and Fiddle. They grow every veggie imaginable, create the most gorgeous bouquets, and are owned by the most lovely family! Last week, I bought a lavender-blueberry-carrot-peony bouquet, a new tea, and approximately 7,000 different veggies. I’ll never be able to afford to move out of my parents’ house, but you know what? That’s okay. At least I’m eating well.
So thanks to Alice Waters’ courage and perseverance, we Americans have more options than just a quick bite. She introduced the idea that a meal is something to be crafted, savored, and valued. Do you take the time to make fresh meals at home? How do you incorporate the concept of “slow eating” into your home? And how can you support local farms and fresh restaurants near you?
And, to learn more about food and farming in America, check out Season One, Episode Two of Reconnecting Roots, “Seed to Supermarket”, at pbs.org/show/reconnecting-roots!