I love mesclun. That’s the mix of baby greens–frisee, arugula, teeny spinach leaves, and the rest–that looks so pretty and tastes so nice that all you have to do for a salad is grab a handful, or even a pre-packaged plastic bagful, dump it into a bowl, and throw on some dressing. It’s a cook’s godsend, whether for a big buffet when you’re too busy preparing the other dishes to have much time left over for the salad, or for the occasions when you’re just too darned tired at the end of a long working day to tear up big heads of lettuce and cut up tomatoes. And what I love best about mesclun is that nowadays you can buy it just about anywhere, even at the Safeway in my own strikingly unfashionable Washington, D.C. neighborhood.
It turns out that there’s someone else besides God to thank for omnipresent mesclun: Todd Koons, the CEO of Epic Roots and inventor of a technology for mechanically harvesting, washing, drying, and bagging the tiny California-grown greens so that they’re available in nearly every supermarket in America. (Koons’ company is now out of the mesclun business and is focusing its efforts on applying similar technologies to mache, another midget salad leaf that French gourmands adore but until Koons came along, had to be hand-harvested and never saw a supermarket shelf.)
Isn’t that wonderful–gourmet food for ordinary Americans? But no–in deciding to make mesclun cheap enough and available enough for anyone to buy, Koons has fallen afoul of the doyenne of American food snobs, Alice Waters. Waters was once Koons’ employer at her famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, and also his girlfriend. And the two have scarcely been speaking for years because–get this–Koons had the nerve to take mesclun, which Alice has served for years at Chez Panisse, and mass-market it! At Chez Panisse, legions of sous-chefs tenderly wash and dry each hand-picked individual greenhouse-grown leaf of mesclun, and a plateful costs what it costs to send your kid to Harvard. At Chez Koons, a bag of Safeway machine-harvested mesclun that feeds four costs about $3. Capitalism! We can’t have that, says Alice.
The Koons-Waters fallout is marvelously captured in an article by food-journalist Burkhard Bilger in the Sept. 6 New Yorker. Unfortunately, the article is not available online, but here’s a wonderful summary by the San Francisco Examiner’s P.J. Corkery of how the atmosphere frosted over like a sorbet dish when Koons showed his face recently at Alice’s Restaurant:
“Broken Hearts of Lettuce: Alice Waters and that grower of exotic greens Todd Koons, who were lovers back in their salad days, are like oil and vinegar these days. Alice is the vinegary one. When Koons showed up at Chez Panisse recently with writer Burkhard Bilger, ‘She seemed a little taken aback,’ Bilger writes in the Sept. 6 New Yorker. ‘…There was a coolness to her manner, and she soon left to join friends.’
“‘”Alice and I don’t have the juiciest of relationships anymore,” Koons says, “There’s no mutuality there.”‘
“Koons is growing an exotic leaf called m’che, down in Salinas, for supermarkets. He sees the effort as extending to the great unwashed masses the love of subtle greens that Waters began 30 years ago. To succeed, he has to factory-farm. Alice says, ‘Todd has gone on another trajectory. … I don’t know what to think of it. He wasn’t growing organically, I know, and that is for me a bottom line. That is the most important part.’ Apparently that’s what the chill between the former lovers is about….
“Koons also drives a Toyota Land Cruiser, which he uses to wheel around his farms. When he parks in Berkeley he usually returns to the SUV to find this protesting sticker affixed to his bumper: ‘Ask Me What I’m Doing to Change the Climate.’ He’s working on an answering sticker to read, ‘Ask Me What I’m Doing to Feed Your Face.'”
Yes. In his article, Bilger reminds us that except in California, where most U.S. lettuce is grown, the vast majority of Americans not only never saw mesclun on their supermarket shelves but never saw any other kind of lettuce except for bland, hardy, boring iceberg. The factory-farming techniques that Koons invented enabled millions of Americans who had never tasted a real salad to enjoy healthful, beautiful freshly dressed greens. He helped make gourmets out of all of us.
But Alice Waters’s response to all this is: If you can’t afford to fork over Chez Panisse prices for salad, it shouldn’t be on your fork. Good food is only for rich people. “We need to learn to pay more for our produce,” she sniffed at Bilger.
I’ve never eaten at Chez Panisse myself (those prices!), but I’m sure that Alice’s organic mesclun is far tastier than the $3 equivalent here at Chez Charlotte–as well it ought to be. Still, I’m on my knees in gratitude to Todd Koons, and I can’t wait until his mache hits my local Safeway.