A few days ago I was fortunate enough to attend a session of Edible Education 101 at UC Berkeley guest starring Alice Waters and The Kitchen Sisters. No matter how long I live in the Bay Area, I hope I always live it as a newcomer, and take advantage of the many exciting events this place has to offer, without just settling into the fact that famous people I am interested in happen to be local, around and about.
I brought my daughter Olivia, age 9, with me. She complained at first to have to leave the comfort of home on a weeknight, but as soon as we entered the packed-to-the-brim Wheeler auditorium, she was mesmerized (and even took notes from the slideshow! see photo, a quote from the Dalai Lama). Mark Bittman was on stage, wearing a zebra-striped shirt and looking down as he silently, without acknowledging the crowd, cooked. Yes, cooked. A spread of colorful produce (rainbow chard and all things spring) decorated his work space, though most of it was for show (I hope someone ate it all later). The evening was titled "An Education of the Senses", and Bittman was there to supply smell: as the female speakers for the night took the stage, the entire auditorium was filled with the mouth-watering aroma of garlic sizzling in fruity olive oil. The Kitchen Sisters and the diva of Chez Panisse supplied sight and sound through their conversation and a multimedia presentation, but even taste was later to be replenished, leaving our senses complete: as we left the auditorium at the end of the evening, we were offered sweet slices of petite pixie tangerines from a basket.
Some of the things Ms. Waters said during the evening resonated with my eating philosophy so strongly that I thought it was a good excuse to return to this somewhat abandoned of late blog and write a new post reminding all of you to revisit my ever-cherished concept of sobremesa.
A fearful statistic came up during the evening: apparently 85% of the kids in the US do not sit down to eat with their families at least once a week (of course, the UC Berkeley undergrads who made up the bulk of the audience were an exception, according to a show of hands). This is not only scary because of what it says about the value of the family in today's society (and one can only imagine how and with whom meals are eaten), but apparently recent scientific studies areshowing that sitting down to eat with the family means better performance later on, in school and in life.
When Ms. Waters was asked whether she identified with Julia Child, she pointed out that they both learned about food in France, when France was still a slow food culture, and people went to the market twice a day because there was different produce on offer in the morning and in the afternoon, and they gathered outside the shops or farmers markets to share a conversation. As she described this France of decades ago, I couldn't help shutting my eyes and returning to my Barcelona; although it is a metropolis suffering from an increase in the physical and social illnesses of modern globalized world, this slow food culture is still there, in the women who push their carts to the Boqueria or Santa Caterina markets every morning, in the kids who gather in the neighborhood plaza after school is out and play there until the sun goes down. Yes, even in Barcelona, this culture still exists and I cherish it, all the more now that I am so far away. If you happen to visit any of many small Spanish villages, you might look beyond the shiny supermarket chain signs and just notice how still everything stays for siesta, from 2 to 5pm. Or that shops never open on Sundays; workers need to rest too, and Sundays are for having late lunches with the family and a long sobremesa.
The problem is not just what we are eating, it's how we are eating it, said Ms. Waters. The values of a fast food culture are poisoning the experience of eating good food, which can never be good for us if we are eating it in the car on the go. Please, practice sobremesa. Come share the table.