Obama Honors Alice Waters With National Humanities Medal

The popularizer of fresh, local ingredients is the first restaurateur to receive the recognition.

(Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Sep 12, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Before Alice Waters became famous for her cooking at Chez Panisse, she was part of the free-speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was a student in the 1960s. So while salad would become her most renowned medium after she opened her restaurant near the campus in 1971, politics has always been important to Waters.

It should be no surprise, then, that as a restaurateur famous enough that she is often referred to simply as “Alice,” Waters would have a long-running relationship with American politicians. Though she turned down an offer to cook at the inauguration of a fellow Californian, Ronald Reagan, in 1980—she claimed not to know the way to Washington—Waters gladly accepted an invitation from President Barack Obama to come to the capital on Thursday to be honored with a National Humanities Medal.

The medal was bestowed on Waters, who was honored alongside the likes of writers Jhumpa Lahiri and Annie Dillard, for her work championing “a holistic approach to eating and health...integrating gardening, cooking, and education, sparking inspiration in a new generation.”

The honor, a first for someone who works in food (farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry received the medal in 2010), shows the progress of Waters’ notion that where food comes from and how it is prepared and eaten is important for the environment and society alike. While she wouldn’t cook for Reagan, President Clinton dined at Chez Panisse, and she lobbied him hard to plant a garden at the White House—a dream that came to pass, thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama, in 2009.

“The act of eating is very political,” Water told The New York Times in 1996. “You buy from the right people, you support the right network of farmers and suppliers who care about the land and what they put in the food. If we don’t preserve the natural resources, you aren’t going to have a sustainable society. This is not something for Chez Panisse and the elite of San Francisco. It’s for everyone.”

In that story, which marked the 25th anniversary of Chez Panisse, author Marian Burros wrote that unlike others who protested on college campuses across the country in the 1960s, “Ms. Waters has never lost her idealism.” Nearly 20 years and two presidents later, she still hasn’t.

On Thursday, after the medal ceremony, Waters told NPR, “Food has always been like fuel, and now it’s considered to be something that really lifts our spirits. And when food and agriculture are put together and are in the rhythm of nature, it brings us back to the table, where a cultural conversation can happen.”

Waters talked to TakePart in June about the need for “edible education for every child.”