>The Pagnol/Waters connection: Chez Panisse and the good life


The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be.

~ Marcel Pagnol

This post is about dreaming…

Alice Water in early 1970s.
Image by Charles Shere.

If you are a food lover then you’ve heard of Alice Waters. What I had never heard was the story behind the name of her famous restaurant, Chez Panisse. In the forward to the English translation of Marcel Pagnol‘s My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle, Waters writes the following words:

Fifteen years ago, when I was making plans to open a café and restaurant in Berkeley, my friend Tom Luddy took me to see a Marcel Pagnol retrospective at the old Surf Theater in San Francisco. We went every night and saw about half the movies Pagnol made during his long career: The Baker’s Wife and Harvest, taken from novels by Jean Giono, and Pagnol’s own Marseille trilogy—Marius, Fanny, and César. Every one of these movies about life in the south of France fifty years ago radiated wit, love for people, and respect for the earth. Every movie made me cry.

Vahala a.k.a. Chez Panisse
Image by Aya Brackett

She goes on:

My partners and I decided to name our new restaurant after the widower Panisse, a compassionate, placid, and slightly ridiculous marine outfitter in the Marseille trilogy, so as to evoke the sunny good feelings of another world that contained so much that was incomplete or missing in our own—the simple wholesome good food of Provence, the atmosphere of tolerant camaraderie and great lifelong friendships, and a respect for both the old folks and their pleasures and for the young and their passions. Four years later, when our partnership incorporated itself, we immodestly took the name Pagnol et Cie., Inc., to reaffirm our desire of recreating an ideal reality where life and work were inseparable and the daily pace left you time for the afternoon anisette or the restorative game of pétanque, and where eating together nourished the spirit as well and the body—since the food was raised, harvested, hunted, fished, and gathered by people sustaining and sustained by each other and by the earth itself.

This little passage was a revelation for me. I am a fan of Waters and her vision. I love the slow food movement and community supported agriculture (though I need to put by enthusiasms more into practice). I had no idea of her love for Pagnol’s films or how Chez Panisse got its name. Maybe I am the last to know.

A video look at Chez Panisse.

I was searching the library catalog for the films My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle, but the library only had the book, so I checked it out. Originally published in 1960 (in French of course) the Alice Waters’ foreword is from a 1986 edition.

Alice Waters today.
Image by David Sifry.

Two of my favorites things in this world – the kinds of things that makes me say “there is a god” – are great films and great food. I was so pleased to read those words from Alice Waters. Here is someone who is famous for her restaurant, her cook books, her simple, earthy philosophy – all of which I admire – and yet she displays a deeply felt response to cinema. And then she creates a permanent connection between the two great arts. That is the kind of human action of which we need more.

Marcel Pagnol looking suave.

I am now in the hunt for the Marseilles Trilogy (a.k.a. The Fanny Trilogy). I see that is is available on DVD. Since my local library doesn’t have it this might be the final straw that gets me to sign up for Netflix (you’re wondering why I haven’t already). I know very little of Pagnol’s work, but I have a feeling I will love it. I would hazard a guess that he was an interesting individual and a great filmmaker.

The day would turn enchanting when Marcel arrived, unheralded, in the middle of our boring summer holidays in La Treille. From then on, our day was filled with unusual commotion as my brother would immediately stage some activity: long hikes in the hills, picnics, highbrow conversations way off our usual chattering.

~ René Pagnol, Marcel Pagnol’s brother

One day, I saw La femme du boulanger (“The Baker’s Wife”)… It was a shock. This movie is as powerful as a film by Capra, John Ford and Truffaut altogether. Pagnol must have been an outstanding man.

~ Steven Spielberg

Here is a three part homage to Pagnol and the world he inhabited, wrote about, and filmed:

I began this post by saying it was about dreaming. I dream of visiting southern France (where I’ve never been), of making films and writing books (which I’ve only done on the smallest scale), of cooking gourmet meals (which I’ve done many times, but there’s always more), and of eating at Chez Panisse (which I’ve also yet to do). These dreams, and others, keep me alive.

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