Hand-painted menus were just one on the many little details that makes a Waters dinner unique.
"This is pretty exciting," said Gerry Newman, whose Albemarle Baking Company was tapped to supply the bread.
On a beautiful day last Friday, April 20, Monticello served as the "divine stage" for a feast of feasts, according to Alice Waters, owner and executive chef of the world-famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. The renowned proponent of the local food movement assembled an all-star cast of nationally recognized chefs to prepare a meal for major donors and guests of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
"I'm here because our democracy is buried here," said Waters, during a chat on the West Lawn as her team prepared for the meal. "Jefferson was our first edible educator. He took perfect notes. And he was both a farmer and a gastronome. We just need to dig it all up and eat it."
As part of Historic Garden Week, Waters was on hand to showcase Jefferson's ideas about food production and sustainability, and a few of her own.
"I'm here because I'm trying to gather the forces of good in this country," she said, "and put the wind at the back of the President."
Fresh off a recent visit to the White House, where she was consulting on the President and First Lady's initiative to send AmeriCorps volunteers into public schools to teach gardening, Waters said that during Obama's term the interest in local food production has exploded. She credits the Obamas for putting in a White House garden and for Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative to get kids exercising.
"We need to promote edible education, and to introduce good, local food into the schools," says Waters. "We could transform the schools, and our society, by doing so."
And it's not about telling them to eat their carrots; it's about "trying to seduce them" into the gardening.
"Kids really like gardens, and they like growing things," says Waters. "When kids grow things, they want to eat them."
Waters is convinced that the way one eats influences the way one thinks, and therefore a society's values.
"If you think food should be cheap, fast, and easy," she says, "you think everything should be cheap, fast, and easy. There's even cheap, fast, and easy love. We have no patience, we don't read. We need to slow down and teach things differently."
As for the meal, well, Waters said that she wished she could have included more local produce, but there just wasn't enough time. Still, the number of locally-sourced ingredients was impressive, and Waters could be seen out picking kale from Monticello's gardens just before she sat down for the chat.
As Joan Nathan, the New York Times food writer told a reporter, a meal by Waters is all about little details– from the cookware, to cooking methods, to table settings.
In addition to seven local wines, the meal featured Allen's Creek Farm milk-fed lamb grilled over Monticello fruit and vine wood, juleps made from mint from Monticello's garden, duck eggs from Whistlin' Hollow Farm in Afton, and wood-oven baked bread from Albemarle Baking Company.
There was also a crab bisque getting prepared in enormous copper pots over open flames, while blue feather-edged reproduction plates, wooden spreaders made from fruit trees at Monticello, and authentic coin-silver dinner forks and antique linen napkins adorned the tables. New Yorker illustrator Maira Kalamn was even brought in to create a special design for the chocolate wrappers, and famous designer Charlotte Moss created the evening's ambiance.
Waters bemoaned the fact that there was electricity on the mountain, as she would have preferred to use only fire and candle-light. However, Backyard Revolution, a Central Virginia-based organization that promotes the pre-petroleum age way of doing things, supplied old butter churns and earthenware mixing bowls.
Whether or not the forces of good were summoned may be open for debate, but the forces of good food were definitely in play. So had Waters stopped by any places in town? She said she had visited the Spice Diva and Feast!, both located in the Main Street Market on West Main, and was very impressed.
"I wish I could have visited more local places," she said. "That's what is so fun about this."
As a parting shot, she tossed out a novel idea: letting high school students operate the cafeterias.
"They should source the food, prepare it, run the business operations," says Waters. "Think about what an incredible learning experience that would be."