This past weekend, a petite woman, in her early 70s with short waves of brown hair and a delicate gold peace sign on a chain around her neck, landed at SeaTac and realized her scheduled allowed a visit Pike Place Market—her first in maybe 25 years. May in Seattle means the season of asparagus and peonies, but beyond that, she had no idea what she might find.
The years had certainly changed Seattle's landmark food hall. There were more crafts than she remembered, and way more people on the cobblestone street, taking in the first warm and sunny weekend of the year. She wandered through these masses alone and happened upon a stand with fat stalks of purple asparagus, closer in color to eggplant than the normal shade of warm violet. The hand-written placard said "Organic Local Sweet-Tender Purple Asparagus."
The woman running the stand cut a piece off one of the stalks and handed it over to the visitor to taste. "You've never had asparagus like this!"
Those words, probably her usual gambit to passers-by, would have sounded far more audacious if she'd known the lone shopper admiring those vivid asparagus stalks was Alice Waters.
It's not an overstatement to call the chef and owner of Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant one of the most influential figures in food, and perhaps the nation's most seminal advocate for eating organic and local. Waters is the reason “farm-to-table” became a term in the first place and, through the many culinary disciples of her movement (and eventual wannabes), the reason it’s used so much that we probably need to invent new terminology to talk about restaurants’ food ethos.
Waters tasted the proffered stalk. "Oh my god, so juicy and sweet! I haven't had asparagus like this since I was in France." She chatted with the woman running the stand about the farm from whence they came. She bought a bunch, but Waters came to Seattle to speak at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's annual chef gala fundraiser, so she ultimately passed them along to a friend.
"I didn’t have any place to cook them," she says that Sunday evening as she pulls out her iPhone, in its sensible grippy black case, to show photographic proof of just how purple those stalks were. "It makes me think I better go back there tomorrow and get another bunch to take home."
Her next stop at the market was Sur La Table. Waters came here in the early 1990s when it was still run by its founder, Shirley Collins, a woman who shares Waters's passion for fresh food markets. A 1993 Seattle Times story recounts how Collins had Waters to her house and fed her sauteed sausages and apples, spoon bread, and a "wild salad."
Now, of course, Sur La Table is owned by a global investment bank, but Waters was pleased to discover the 20-something sales guy working the floor knew all about Collins and her history here, even though he perhaps wasn't even in kindergarten when the founder sold the shop in 1995. As she left, she asked him, "When she comes in again, will you tell her Alice Waters stopped by to see her?"
Pleased to find the years hadn't abraded the soul of Seattle's market, Waters departed to focus on her Fred Hutch engagement. She posed for photos with the chefs and talked to the audience about food and health, starting with the story of how her parents' victory garden influenced how the family ate, even as she grew up in New Jersey in a sea of convenience foods. As a kid, Waters recounted to a sea of rapt tables, she won a costume contest with her "Queen of the Garden" outfit, made of strawberries, bell peppers, and asparagus...ones presumably not as juicy as the violet bunches that captured her attention at Pike Place Market earlier in the weekend.
The idea of Alice Waters strolling Pike Place Market with zero fanfare feels akin to bumping into Michael Jordan browsing shoes at your local Niketown. But Waters is quick to demur on this comparison. "I didn't think anybody would recognize me there," she says of her market foray. Maybe not, but her influence on how our nation eats is the reason all those market crowds around her would choose to spend an almost-summer Saturday communing with seasonal produce in the first place.