Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook

I started the new year off with a memoir, seems fitting as I usually spend the beginning of January thinking about where I’m at in life. And it was good timing that my turn came up for Alice Waters’ Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook. I’ve only read one other book by her, My Pantry, which I really enjoyed, so I was interested to see what her memoir would be like.

Her writing style is quite direct and very much the order of things that happened as she talks about her childhood, family, growing up, etc, but then she interrupts herself to go more in depth about an emotion, a person, an event, tying it more to her life now and how it affected things. It was those asides that I enjoyed the most. She certainly lived an interesting life, but like many cooks, a trip to France is what spurred her to learn to cook and then to open a restaurant.

But it was towards the end of the book where she outlines how Chez Panisse came to be that fascinated me. So much of it feels like good timing, support of friends, and just pushing on to get it open. And I absolutely love the way she decided on staff and chefs, based on people she wanted to be around and who she knew could do the job. It seems that most businesses wouldn’t hire that way and I understand why, but it sure worked out for her in the beginning.

My highlights are from the kindle version and are for my future reference, so probably out of context unless you read the book yourself.

And I can be alone—my favorite thing is puttering around the house by myself for three or four hours, following my inclination to take a book off the shelf, remember a recipe from it, put it back. It relaxes me. But I like knowing that I’m meeting someone for dinner at the end of it. (p 16)

Aesthetically, a beautiful work space made me feel comfortable and inspired. It shouldn’t be an afterthought. The right environment around you can make whatever job you’re doing pleasurable, no matter how small the task. (p 49)

It’s so great when someone you admire draws your attention to something, and suddenly you see it for the first time. Sometimes you need a friend who has great taste to help you to see that something has value and beauty. (p 163)

I believe now that 90 percent of taste comes from an understanding of what seed should be planted in what place, how to care for the plant, when to pick it, and how quickly to eat it. (p 251)

What’s endlessly fascinating to me about cooking and eating is the biodiversity of the planet. The depth of the abundance of the earth. I’ll never be able to comprehend it. Nobody can. And that’s the tragedy of fast food—everything in this country changed with fast food. We wanted shippability, we wanted year-round availability, we wanted food for cheap. And when you achieve all that, you take away everything—you lose touch with nature, and you exist in a hollow place, devoid of beauty and nourishment. (p 252)

It’s such a simple thing to light a candle—it changes the whole tone of an experience at a table. (p 274)

Because as it turned out, food is the most political thing in all our lives. Eating is an everyday experience, and the decisions we make about what we eat have daily consequences. And those daily consequences can change the world. (p 301)

I’d always had strong opinions since I was little, and I’ve always relied on my intuition—a decision has to feel right. It’s something I’ve never worked out intellectually. Is that what people mean by a calling? My calling may have been to listen to my intuition. I’ve followed it my whole life. (p 304)