Berkeley and Oakland Come to the Table
Nikki Henderson of Oakland’s People’s Grocery and Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse Restaurant (Images courtesy of People’s Grocery and the Chez Panisse Foundation)
By Tom Philpott
Alice Waters and Nikki Henderson occupy radically different places in the sustainable food movement.
Waters is a white baby boomer who was raised comfortably middle class; Henderson is an African American millennial who grew up with seven foster brothers. Waters runs an iconic white-tablecloth restaurant in well-heeled Berkeley. Henderson runs an iconic anti-poverty nonprofit in low-income West Oakland. Waters speaks most naturally as an aesthete; Henderson, as a community organizer.
The fact that a single movement can contain both demonstrates its great potential—think of the civil rights movement, which really began to coalesce when an alliance along similar race/class lines developed in the late 1950s. But it also indicates crucial fault lines: If the food movement becomes dominated by its white-tablecloth faction, it risks devolving into a high-end tasting club that has little impact on the broader culture.
So when I was invited to interview these two formidable women via Skype recently, I jumped at the chance. The occasion was a class Waters has organized at UC Berkeley this fall called “Edible Education 101,” as part of the 40th-anniversary celebration for Chez Panisse, her temple to local, organic food. Henderson, executive director of People’s Grocery, will be coteaching the course with Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other best-selling critiques of the food system. They spoke to me from the Chez Panisse Foundation’s Berkeley offices.
Alice Waters: Aren’t you going to ask me what I had for breakfast?
Mother Jones: We all know you had an Egg McMuffin. We’ll talk about that later! [Laughs.] Let’s start with a hard question. The last time I remember Chez Panisse and People’s Grocery interacting was in 2008, when People’s Grocery’s then-executive director Brahm Ahmadi launched a stinging critique of Slow Food Nation, which Alice organized. He charged that Slow Food threatened to “suck the air” out of the food movement, marginalizing low-income people of color. Now, here the two of you are together. What gives?
Nikki Henderson: Something else that happened at Slow Food Nation is that Van Jones and Alice Waters were on stage together for a panel. And at that point I was working for Van as his aide, and I was the one who kind of prepped him for that panel.