A few weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night in a bit of a panic. Alice Waters was coming to accept the Rodale Institute Organic Pioneer Award on a Friday night, and on Thursday, she was speaking to our editors, so that meant…SHE’D NEED TO EAT SOMETHING ON THURSDAY NIGHT! Crap. I ran through all the options in my head—local restaurant, big dinner, some sort of fundraiser—and it all seemed so impersonal and, frankly, hard on her. Could I, I mused to myself in the dark, actually make dinner for Alice at the real Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen?
I’d met her a few times before, so she wasn’t a stranger. In fact, she was the first person I’d told that I was going to start a blog and name it Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen. She didn’t like the word “country,” but for me, because I feel that’s where our food really comes from, it had to be in there. Plus, that was during my serious country music phase. (We had this conversation at a lunch at Momofuku that David Chang himself cooked for us. I doubt David Chang remembers me, knowing the stress of cooking for Alice.)
I spent a week thinking, strategizing, and fretting about what I would cook before I even got up the courage to ask her. Frankly, simply getting my house ready was a stressful a thought in itself. With a 7-year-old who is a walking explosion of toys and craft supplies, and a garden that had been let go a month ago while I was having all that summer fun…well, there was some work to do!
Once I decided on my theme and what to make, all the pieces fell into place. I’ve often heard Alice say that America doesn’t have a culture of food, so I thought I’d focus on the foods of our local culture, the Pennsylvania Dutch. What was especially good about that approach is that some of the foods need to be made a few days in advance. And wouldn’t you know, that week at work was JAM-PACKED and there was no way I could take time off. So this meal was going to have to be made working-mom style. Fortunately, I have some help at home along with two older daughters who love to cook, one of whom was coming in from New York just to help (well, and to have dinner with Alice!).
I had also met Jack Algiers, the farm manager from Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the week before and when I told him I was cooking for Alice, his responded, “She’s going to really care about sourcing.” Whew, I had that covered. All the meats were purchased at Dietrich’s, which is so authentic it made it into the official Pleasures of Slow Food (Chronicle Books, 2002) book. And everything else was from my own garden, my family’s farm, or the local farmer’s market. Except for a few items like flour and olive oil, of course.
The day came, and I’d planned to leave work at about 4:00. But Alice started talking to the editors at 3:30 and was so mesmerizing that before I knew it, it was 5:00 and I was still sitting there listening. Fortunately, my oldest daughter called in a panic (Which flour to use for the biscuits?!) and I was able to excuse myself and get home. I was immensely relieved that on her own, she went ahead and made the cake and the biscuits and everything was under control. Here is the menu:
A Pennsylvania Dutch Dinner for Alice Waters
Salad—with Alice’s dressing
Heirloom Molasses Cake
A few tiny alpine strawberries from my garden
Fresh tea from just-picked lemon verbena
When Maya looked at the menu, she said, “Oh, it’s like Pennsylvania Dutch tapas.” Everything was freshly made and freshly picked. I’d even dug up the potatoes from my own garden that morning and picked the peppers after work to slice up fresh.
I know Alice really loves salads, as do I, so I asked if she could make the dressing for the green salad so I could learn from her. It was amazing! That’s my next blog, so stay tuned.
So…how did it go? Well, there is an intimacy that occurs when you have a family dinner that makes it hard for me to take good pictures, but I believe we all had a blast and I think she liked it! Alice really enjoyed the Lebanon bologna (as did we). She at least tried a pickled red beet egg for the very first time. She loved the fresh peppers and drank the last of her soup right from the bowl, which made me quite pleased. And she even had seconds of the molasses cake.
At the end of the day, even the most famous and intimidating people are human (even I’ve had people remark on the fact that I’m human after they meet me). It’s the Big Secret of our celebrity culture: We are all human. And I think when things are done with love and good intentions, that’s the main ingredient in a good meal, that’s the nourishment that everyone craves most of all, that’s the hunger that needs to be fed.
At the end of the evening, we were all well “fed” and happy.