Aug. 28, 2012


by Denise Levertov

When I opened the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
                   My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
                                               I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I'll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop

"Aware" by Denise Levertov, from This Great Unknowing. © New Directions Publishing, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1971 that Alice Waters opened her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. It's now considered to be the birthplace of California cuisine, a fusion style where locally grown foods are used to prepare dishes from different traditions around the world, and the resulting dinner is arranged very artistically on the plate.

Waters went to college at Berkeley in the mid-'60s. She majored in French studies. During one summer, she traveled to France and had a meal in Brittany, which she says was a huge inspiration for the rest of her life: "I've remembered this dinner a thousand times. The chef, a woman, announced the menu: cured ham and melon, trout with almonds, and raspberry tart. The trout had just come from the stream and the raspberries from the garden. It was this immediacy that made those dishes so special."

She returned to Berkeley, did a lot of French cooking for her friends, and decided to start a restaurant with a friend also interested in French cuisine, Paul Aratow, a Berkeley professor of comparative literature. And on this day in 1971, Chez Panisse opened its doors. It had a set menu: pâtés en croûte, salad, duck with olives — and for dessert, an almond tart. It all cost $3.95. There wasn't much hype around this neighborhood bistro in North Berkeley at first. But then four years later, Gourmet magazine featured a gushing article about it. Soon foodies from all over the country began making pilgrimages to the birthplace of California Cuisine.

Chez Panisse began listing on the menu the way it prepared its dishes, and the places where ingredients came from — so these days a Chez Panisse menu lists stuff like "Marin Sun Farms beef tenderloin grilled over vine cuttings" or "king salmon baked in rock salt with wild fennel gratin, new potatoes, and wilted amaranth greens" or "Santa Rosa plum ice cream profiteroles with plum caramel." It's still at the same location in Berkeley, but the $3.95 set dinner price tag is a thing of the distant past. The set weekend night dinner menu is on the order of a hundred dollars a head now.

Alice Waters has helped to revolutionize ideas about food in the United States, popularizing the practices of eating locally, organically, and sustainably. She's written about a dozen food-related books, including Slow Food: The Case for Taste (2004) and In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart (2010).

It's the birthday of the man who said, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." That's Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (books by this author), born in Frankfurt (1749), the author of the epic drama Faust.

Goethe spent 50 years working on this two-volume masterpiece, part one published in 1806 and finishing part two in 1832, the year of his death.

It's the birthday of poet John Betjeman (1906) (books by this author). He was born in London, the only child of a furniture maker. He wrote his first poem at nine; at 10, he gave a copy of his work "The Best of Betjeman" to one of his instructors, who happened to be T.S. Eliot. He took his first trip to Oxford the following year, and became inspired by the architecture of its churches and other buildings. Later in life he would campaign for the preservation of Victorian and Edwardian buildings as a founding member of the Victorian Society. He published both his first book of verse (Mount Zion) and his first book on architecture (Ghastly Good Taste) in 1933. In his career as a poet, he often wrote with a sense of nostalgia for the Britain of the recent past, capturing it as it was disappearing; he also satirized progress for its own sake. His work was very popular among the unsettled post-World War II Britons who longed for a simpler time. He also published several guidebooks on British counties and a collection of essays called First and Last Loves (1952) about places and buildings. He was instrumental in saving the Victorian façade of the St. Pancras railway station from demolition, and a statue of the poet — depicted as gazing up in admiration of the architecture — now stands in the station at platform level.

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