In this series for T, Emily Spivack, the author of “Worn Stories,” interviews creative types about their most prized possessions. Here, the founder of Chez Panisse, pioneer of the slow-food movement and prolific author Alice Waters explains what has prompted her to collect café au lait bowls for nearly 50 years. Waters will be at the international food festival Slow Food Nations in Denver from July 19 to 21.
I’d never had café au lait until my first trip to France in the late 1960s, early 1970s. My French friend Martine made coffee for us in the mornings. The coffee was very strong so I liked it with milk, warm milk. We drank them out of her antique café au lait bowls.
I took that habit back home with me. Now I have 50 or 60 bowls. I’ll use them for olives or aioli or tea. Their shape, design, color and size are a part of my kitchen. I don’t want them sitting on a shelf. I use them. There have been many casualties. Some can be repaired and some can’t, so if one breaks, it breaks.
I buy them at flea markets when I travel. I want to see how people lived 50 or 100 years ago and the quality of their work — the clothing, the linen sheets, the embroidery — and the café au lait bowls are part of that heritage. I have bowls from Morocco, Mexico, Italy and France. Probably the oldest are from the 1920s.
I love how the bowl opens up. Unlike drinking out of a glass that’s narrow at the top and bottom, it invites you in. You’re getting the full aroma. You’re holding it in your hands. You’re experiencing something with almost all of your senses. Maybe you don’t hear it, but you certainly see it, touch, it, taste it and smell it. It’s an intimate kind of experience. It’s definitely a slow-food object. The bowl insists that you sit at a table and pick it up with both hands. It can’t go in a car. It doesn’t fit in a cup holder.
I designed a set of these bowls in colors I liked with Heath Ceramics in San Francisco for Chez Panisse. The set goes from a dark, almost charcoal, to a beautiful yellow, with tans and browns in between.
I don’t drink café au lait anymore. I stopped about 10 years ago. I have high cholesterol so I drink a Chinese dark fermented tea called pu-erh. Or I’ll take a bunch of mint, put it in a bowl, and pour hot water over it. Nowadays, these are tea bowls.
— This interview has been edited and condensed.