/Dinner with Alice Waters

Dinner with Alice Waters

Last week I had dinner with Alice Waters. Well, that’s what I signed up for anyway: a 10-person benefit dinner to support the Rome Sustainable Food Project. Somehow this intimate gathering to raise money for the RSFP internship program morphed into an utterly fabulous dinner party over twice the size I was promised—and what had I promised to the group of donors I brought with me.

We had hoped for an opportunity to have a real conversation with Ms. Waters, the activist, chef, and author who co-founded the RSFP in 2006. My friends and I work in food and wine education and were eager to discuss the serious issues that face producers and consumers in Rome and its region. We see evidence of the erosion of food culture every day. We fight against it. We are losing. We wanted to speak to a woman who had fought and won. Things didn’t go as planned. Delusion ensued.

The setting for the benefit was the Villa Aurelia, an ornate palatial complex on the Janiculum Hill. The delectable and unpretentious dishes—puntarella salad, foraged mushroom risotto, and roasted lamb—would have been more at home in a badly decorated and poorly illuminated trattoria (aren’t they always superior to those who employ an interior decorator?) than a candle-lit gilded banquet hall.

The whole experience left me rather confused. Of course the night was, objectively, fabulous. But fabulous is hardly interesting when real issues are at stake. It was a charity dinner served with a side of cognitive dissonance.

So if I’m such a cynic, what was I doing there in the first place? I believe the RSFP is doing very important work. It promotes eating local, seasonal produce and limited quantities of organic meat. The food is nourishing, tasty, and carefully sourced. In Rome, such a combination is rare. Of course, their reach is limited, but they could still serve as a model for other institutions. They deserve support and praise for their dedication.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The RSFP is not a mirror of Roman food culture. It is important precisely because it exists in spite of the tragic decline of good food in Rome and Lazio. As a long-time Rome resident, culinary educator, and journalist, I observe and document the reality that farmers and food artisans combat every day. Ms. Waters’ post-risotto speech didn’t quite reflect my experiences here.

Instead, she painted an idealistic portrait of Rome as the edible city (a theme I often address in my lectures and even here on the blog…stay tuned for a post on a recent urban olive harvest). Then an anachronistic praise of the city’s fabulous produce followed. I wanted to shout, “NO! It sucks!” And, on average, it does. And how could it possibly be any good since so little comes from nearby and even less is fresh off the farm. Newsflash: Rome dwellers shop for produce in supermarkets and (to a lesser extent) mercati rionali where virtually NOTHING is farm fresh. Indeed, the Rome Sustainable Food Project relies on one of the relatively very few organic/biodynamic farmers in Lazio. Giovanni Bernabei is a mascot of the RSFP. He is unique. He is not the rule, but the exception.

The speech then turned to fast food, and praise for Rome’s aversion to it. At this point I wanted to stand on the table and shout, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” I would wager that Rome has exponentially more fast food consumers than Slow Food members. And it only takes a brief walk around town to see the growth of McDonald’s and Subway. They are out there and they are growing. The local chain Chicken Hut is quickly expanding, too.

The RSFP is an important institution because it is a model for what food in Rome could be if we reverse the rise of supermarkets, the closure of farms, the mass production and distribution of food, and the growth of fast food. All of those things are happening and there is so little resistance to them. The RSFP is not a reflection of Roman food culture; it is an idealized and improved version of it.

Where does this widely held misconception that all food in Rome is local, seasonal, healthy, cultivated on small farms come from? How is this fantasy still alive in 2012? It truly boggles my mind. Do you want to know what it is really like here? I’ll let my friend Eleonora describe it. Here is a quote from her eloquent post about the same dinner:

[Food in Rome is] not really a bed of roses…way too many supermarkets and bad eating habits are common here too, not only overseas. I’d like to say that the image of this dolce vita lifestyle, with nonna‘s recycling of leftovers and solid morality in the grocery shopping list is sadly not happening. The average family does not have all that much choice. Sadly there is no chance to forage wisely, no trace of the community gardens Alemanno promised Waters during her last visit 2 years ago… nor of the edible schoolyards purportedly commissioned in every public school of the city. Niente. I’d like to say it out loud that it’s still brutally expensive to shop at the farmers markets and Italian CSA equivalents because mass distribution is killing us…

Rome residents do not have the privileged access to the same kind of food offered by the RSFP. That would be impossible. There aren’t enough small, organic farms to provide that volume of food. Of course, some people do purchase local goods, eschew fast food, and patronize small food artisans. But most people buy what is convenient and economical. The km0, Slow Food*, and organic movements are for those with means. Good food raised properly costs money and this resource is in short supply these days.

So what is the solution? I honestly don’t know. But it has to begin with honest conversation rooted in reason and fact. I think the RSFP is a valuable model, but education, research and activism by local communities are critical, too. The future seems grim though I hope I am wrong.

*Slow Food lost the little credibility it had with me when it endorsed masters of vertical integration, Eataly Roma. Is there anything less sustainable than shipping tons of bottled water and food from Piedmont when Lazio’s water is amazing and its farmers are dying out? Mental.

2017-02-17T15:16:59+00:00 November 11th, 2012|Categories: Culture, Food & Wine, Gastronomic Traditions, Rome & Lazio|20 Comments

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  1. Sarah Jessica Farber November 11, 2012 at 9:12 pm - Reply

    Oh, say it ain’t so? Alice drank the proverbial kool-aid. Did you get a chance to talk to her one on one at all? She needs to get her message straight.

  2. Sarah May (@AntiquaTours) November 11, 2012 at 10:17 pm - Reply

    Sei sempre grande

  3. Mamma Parla November 12, 2012 at 12:08 am - Reply

    BRAVA for speaking out. I hope that she gets your message LOUD & CLEAR!

  4. Zvia Shwirtz November 12, 2012 at 11:53 am - Reply

    Awesome article! Especially those last lines on Eataly, cannot agree more!

  5. Lindsey November 12, 2012 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Sounds like this should be a European-wide discussion as we could make similar remarks about the food movement in Paris. The number of people who get their produce (and everything else for that matter) from supermarkets is astounding. I hope Ms. Waters reads your message because it’s such an important one.

  6. Arlene Gibbs November 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    “aren’t they always superior to those who employ an interior decorator?”

    Wait, what’s wrong with interior decorators?!!

    Coming from the USA (and L.A. specifically) Rome does have more options when it comes to great AND reasonable priced farmers markets. Trust me, the Santa Monica and Hollywood Farmers Markets are MUCH more expensive than Circo Massimo. My food bill dropped quite a bit since I’ve moved here despite the fact that I cook more often.

    However, in just the four years I’ve been here I’ve seen more and more fast food places going up. True, four McDonalds closed but there are a bunch of new chains taking their place. I really don’t get the Subway thing at all. It’s sad.

  7. Gianni Lovato November 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    “Lindsey” and ” Arlene Gibbs” both have a point.
    But it shouldn’t be just a “European-wide discussion”. This is indeed a global issue (or at least a Western World one).
    And I am afraid that, despite all their good intentions, Alice Waters and many other people are doing the equivalent of whistling in the dark.
    Maybe the good Katie should have jumped on the table and shouted.
    Thanks for an excellent post (but the natives are the ones who should be most grateful to you!!!)

  8. janie November 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm - Reply

    Thank you for telling the real story. It must have been hard for you to sit there and listen to all of it.

  9. Jeannie Marshall November 12, 2012 at 8:03 pm - Reply

    No one wants to hear this about Rome or Italy generally. My son goes to an Italian Steiner school here in Rome and there they actually do try to nurture the traditional food culture. They celebrate seasonal foods and they eat a fabulous two-course lunch with vegetables and fruit at the end. When I read the menus each week I often think they could invite the parents and serve wine with it. Unfortunately, it’s not the norm.

  10. brenna November 12, 2012 at 9:40 pm - Reply


    Having some experience with the AAR, the RSFP and the ivory tower-ness of it all, I agree with you that their model of food acquisition and consumption is not necessarily possible for the rest of us. But I wonder if you could expand a bit about Eataly and Slow Food. Yes, they’re flawed organizations, but if, as you say, Italians have turned away from markets/farmers and towards grocery stores, in a strictly pragmatic/practical sense, shouldn’t it at least be towards a better supermarket? At the very least Eataly has connections (however small) towards ethical ideas about where food comes from and why it’s important to know where food comes from, which is more than I can say for the Carrefour Express, Despar, or Punto Sma that are around the corner from me.

    If you’re battling for the average Roman (who, as an urban dweller, probably has little to no connection to the land/farming) to eat more sustainably/locally/from farmers rather than at the conveniently located supermarkets, it seems like Eataly and Slow Food, despite their flaws, are a decent place to start, not least of all because they have the funds and corporate muscle to educate the public. It’s like Whole Foods in the US–flawed, but at least it’s a start and particularly a starting point for education. In this and most issues I would argue, education is the most essential thing. It is only once a person knows about the importance of shopping/eating sustainably, can they make choices in that vein that are within their time and budget constraints. Buying one bio/local item at Eataly could function like a gateway drug: bio chicoria leading to bio meats leading to local, raw milk and artisanal cheeses, etc, etc.

    Additionally, in a practical sense regarding the Ostiense/Garbatella/Testaccio neighborhood: empty warehouses full of squatters don’t help anybody eat better/more sustainably, so I would take an Eataly over an empty warehouse any day!

  11. Sarah May (AntiquaTours) November 12, 2012 at 11:49 pm - Reply


    It is not just a western issue anymore. Both China and India are adopted a more western animal product diet and that is not good for our planet if you consider that more greenhouse gases are produced from animal agriculture than all transportation combined. Not to mention the terrible health problems.

  12. Sarah May (AntiquaTours) November 12, 2012 at 11:54 pm - Reply

    Just my two cents regarding Eataly or Slow Food vs grocery stores. My two local grocery stores feature bread from local bakeries in the Castelli Romani. I can get bread from Genzano, Velletri and Lariano, but I can’t buy bread from Piedmont. The local coop makes a point to showcase Lazio products. So for me I would rather shop at COOP if I must. Even the local Carrefour sells local breads and food. More than Eataly, I am sure. And based on what I have researched COOP treats employees a lot better than Eataly. I am pretty sure the local COOP didn’t use a temp agency.

  13. prosciuttaro83 November 13, 2012 at 12:20 pm - Reply

    I think the major problem with Eataly is not regarding the quality of the products they sell, some stuff is good even though fresh produce sucks, but the ethics. Making goods travel for hundreds of km every day is just immoral. Buying Piemonte bottled water in Rome (where there are hundreds of local founts, like all along the Appia) is just a crime against our planet.
    Now there are a lot of local producers in Lazio who try to make something good for this world (working 365 days a year for minimal profit) but it’s hard for them to find spaces where they can be recognized. Shops like DOL want to sell prime quality product but don’t wanna pay for them.
    And it doesn’t help that Rome Farmer’s Market and Campagna Amica at Circo Massimo are partially a fraud cause the casual customer thinks he’s buying from a local producer while he’s, in most cases, buying products with a dubious origin from a re-seller. Not all of them, but most. That’s because Coldiretti it’s a shady organization. It’s Italy 101.
    So if even these markets are bad, where should someone go? There are a lot of local organic markets all over Rome every weekend. From Città dell’Altra Economia, to Vicolo della Moretta; from Parco di Aguzzano, to Casale Podere Rosa, to Valle dei Casali. At all of them you can buy food directly from the producer and that’s a fact. Just use the Internet to find them.
    So painting the Roman landscape as ideal is wrong, as Katie correctly stated, but let’s not be defeatists (right?). Let’s keep exposing those who try to fraud people and keep praising those who, instead, try to do something honest.

  14. Eleonora Baldwin November 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    We should have jumped on the table.

  15. david November 15, 2012 at 12:47 am - Reply

    i’m not sure there’s anything inherently immoral with making goods travel hundreds of kilometers. by that logic we shouldn’t send food aid to countries in famine. also consider that every single comment on this page was likely made using a device that travelled thousands of kilometers (unless you happen to live in a foxconn factory).
    nor is shipping food inherently bad for the earth. imagine if every roman decided to drive out to a farmer for food every weekend, or every weekday–literally millions of cars driving to the countryside. it’d be the worst environmental disaster since chernobyl.
    yes, supermarkets aren’t always ideal (or nearly as romantic as the pastoral image of people trotting out to a farm for their food). but it’s also 2012, not 1812. the rome metro area has over 3 million people to feed. i like small farms, small businesses, good food, etc., but i also know you can’t feed 3 million people with varying incomes via coops, small farms, and backyard gardens.
    and as much as i like the idea of “local”, i’m not sure at what point the distance food has travelled becomes un-local, or “immoral”. the distance a man can walk in a morning? a day? the distance a horse-drawn cart can cover in a day? a train ride? ethical/moral principles based on feel (which is what a lot of the well-intentioned if misguided stuff promoted by the AAR and their ilk go by) don’t hold up very well to scrutiny.
    not that i have any answers to what is a very, very complicated problem…

  16. Lisa Barr November 15, 2012 at 6:25 am - Reply

    A complicated problem, indeed. The other thing you need to factor into the equation is time. I try to do the best I can to feed my family (husband and two teenaged sons)a home-cooked meal with quality ingredients, but it isn’t always possible. Many times, we have outside commitments that make it impossible to sit down together for a family meal. As for the shopping, it’s much easier to stop at the supermarket instead of individual purveyors. But for the pesky day job, I could happily spend my time finding the very best quality products (although I probably couldn’t afford them without the day job).

    Even so, I think I do a pretty good job. We had a small garden this summer and also a CSA share at a local organic farm. I invested the time to make fresh tomato sauce, homemade soups, etc., but the fact remains that no one else in my home will eat eggplant, so no matter how many dishes I tried, what I didn’t eat got thrown away. Additionally, we live in New England, so our growing season is very short.

    So–do we abandon the supermarkets, or try to change them? Just try to do our small part, hoping that others will do the same so that our collective effort will make a difference? And does all of this angst about the food supply overshadow our ability to enjoy the good food we have? Many questions without unequivocal answers.

    But back to the original point: yes, Alice Waters has an idealized notion of shopping and cooking in Rome, but I think she is sincere.

  17. prosciuttaro83 November 15, 2012 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Uhm David. I do think it’s immoral. That should not mean that it is for you. But I think that and that’s why I only buy local products, mostly from Lazio and certainly withing the borders of Italy. I don’t buy mangos, avocados, papayas, pineapples. I sometimes buy bananas and I surely buy coffee that come from other continents. Yes I buy oranges from Sicily. But in this little “fight” of mine you have to choose your enemies.
    I don’t know where you live but in Italy like 80% of goods are shipped via truck. Ferrarelle from Campania travelling for 600km to get to Treviso where there’s San Benedetto in Scorzè. And San Benedetto travelling 600km south to get to Naples. It’s sick. It’s water!
    I remember being in a lodge on the ridge of the Ngorongoro vulcan in Tanzania, a place full of founts and had to drink bottled water from Saudi Arabia! Tell me… is it not immoral?

    And as a matter of fact we shouldn’t send food aid to poor countries. Unless there’s an emergency (war, quake, tsnumani…) we should send only money and knowledge to help local people develop their own agricultural businesses. Otherwise we’re just feeding the poor without giving them the possibility to become emancipated. Very convenient for some establishments. Anyway maybe I’m drifting away from the the main topic.

    I don’t mean to say that eating local is easy. I understand the convenience of the supermarket and sometimes I go there too. But there are also mini-marts that only sell local and organic stuff (not NaturaSì or BioPolis though). There you can do like 70/80% of your food shopping. Not bad in terms of time saving.

    There’s not a definitive answer but I do commit my self into doing a small role. It’s like with hybrid cars. Won’t solve the problem of pollution but it won’t make it worse either.

  18. Mary November 15, 2012 at 7:40 pm - Reply

    Great article. The Alice Waters delusion has always bothered me. She is hypocritical in what she promotes, elevating what’s glamorous and elitist on the surface without looking beneath the skin to see if its practical or even true.

    Good for you for pointing out that sometime the emperor has no clothes.

  19. Sasha November 28, 2012 at 5:09 pm - Reply

    Great, great article.
    I was very impressed when I first heard of RSFP and I still am, but that is the point: the surprise comes from the fact that this project is unique and has very low access from the general public.
    I try to buy local but as I see it on myself, it is very hard to do the right choice even for people who are well informed about the importance of food sustainability.

  20. sara January 19, 2013 at 10:48 pm - Reply

    Love this article. And as a person coming from the Bay Area and all that “fabulosity”and Alice Waters and her legacy I tend to see both sides of the argument. She did pave the way in the Bay Area to a more conscious way of eating, thinking about what we put in our mouths, tecahing kids whre their food came from by growing gardens themselves, etc. But having lived here in Rome for the last 15 years, I think she might have fallen into the typical American romantic view of all things Italian that even the food in Rome is “fabulous” (which i can only truthfully and personally say about food in Tuscany and Sicily, so far – nice ingredients!) and relatively speaking, in comparison with the US and yes, even Northern California super markets (not including the not so organic Whole Foods, of course – not a 100% fan of that place either), it is, to a certain degree. But my question is this, to the author, how come you didn’t just speak up, either in front of everyone or pull Ms. Waters aside and share your views? Was there never a chance? What precluded your chance of confronting her face to face with your thoughts? I am sad you couldh’t do that!!! Would have loved reading about that. Hopefully next time! I’m now hooked on this blog. Thank you. sk

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