Friday, June 1, 2007

Time to Stop Sucking

So what happens when smart people devote their lives to cooking, serving and thinking about food? They sometimes come up with great ideas that threaten to transform the way we cook, eat and, in the present instance, drink.

According to this recent article in the NY Times in 2002 a restaurant in San Francisco opened with a menu that did not have any bottled water. Instead Incanto offered filtered tap water. Four years later, Alice Waters picked up on the idea and dropped bottled water from the menu at Chez Panisse and spiffied up the no bottled water concept a bit by offering intra-tap carbonated water. Then the press picked up on it and now the Batali-Bastianichs are doing it and sheesh, for all I know Wolfgang Puck is doing it too. (But I bet if he is he won't be able to resist bottling it and hawking it on the HSN) Watch out for Wolf-Wasser!)

Personally, I'm okay with the practice of selling bottled sparkling water in restaurants, if it is fairly priced and that is what people want to drink. But bottled still water? You must be kidding.

I don't care if your bottled still water is made from asteroid ice, I'm not buying it. Give me tap water or another bottle of wine. But despite the fact that I like to order the sparkling stuff, I think it is a terrific idea for high profile restaurateurs to make a show of eschewing all bottled water and replacing it with filtered tap, carbonated on site or straight-up aqua pura.

Here's why,

Americans drink too got-damn much bottled water.
Right now we are consuming the contents of about 70 million water bottles a day. That's 70 million mostly plastic bottles, 86 % of which end up in landfills. I'm not even going to get into the energy costs and other environmental issues associated with this because they are easy enough to imagine. But come on, 70 million bottles of something that could have been gotten for almost nothing from a tap? This is just stupid. By setting an example by not selling water in bottles, Chefs like Alice Waters will discourage some people from thinking that it is fashionable or gastronomically necessary to have it on the table and hopefully drive consumption down a well.

And anyway,

bottled water is often indistinguishable from tap water. I'll give you two bottles of water both marked "Poland Springs." One will be filled with water from a well in Poland Springs Maine, and the other will be from the well in my front yard. I will ask you to taste them and answer the following question "Which water reminds you of what it means to be from Maine?" You will be dumbfounded, perhaps you will say "both?" Or 'what does it mean to be from Maine, anyway? (I've never been able to answer this question myself. The best answer I've come up with has been "To be from Maine is to be from blueberries, trees and LL Bean.")

Then there is the problem that,

bottled water is infantilizing.- Show me an adult who toddles around a shopping mall or perambulates through the park sucking on a bottle of water and I'll ask you to squint. Then I'll say , "Ya think he's wearing diapers?"

It's not an accident that so many water bottles come with nipples. The nipple might have been put on by manufacturers as a device to allow you to drink the water without having to fumble with a screw cap, and that may be why most people decide to buy it that way. But nothing that anyone does is only done for one reason. And I don't think I'm straining credulity at all by suggesting that another reason why those nipples are there, is that sucking on them is soothing in the same way and for the same reasons that sucking on a bottle is soothing to a baby.

I could go on at great length about how nuts it is that we consume so much bottled water when there's so much good tap water around to be had for next to nothing. But I don't want to get too far away from my central point, which is to say that I think it's wonderful that high profile chefs and restaurateurs like Alice Waters (Hey, no irony in that last name, huh?) and Molto Mario are demonstrating a pathway out of the looming translucent forest of plastic bottles that has been foisted upon us by the nattering nabobs of consumerism and our own innate need to suck.

Now where'd I put my canteen? :-)


Don Luis said...

You'll be happy to know that I use only humanely treated, local, organic, water from the tap.

Unless there is no water (which is often), in which case I use Costco store-brand purified water, sans nipple, and never at the mall.

I only eat at restaurants once a year or so, and I always ask for a pitcher of water.

tscape said...

I agree for the most part, however, I have never lived in a place that had well-water and sometimes the pipes gave the water a funky taste that no filter-system could get rid of. So, purchased, pre-packaged water it was.

max said...

Great post Bob. Made me laugh a lot, and sensible to.

I live in Cape Town, and i'd bet good money on the tap water here being far worse then the average north american water. However there is something called Brita filters, which incidentally owns.

The Foodist said...

"I don't care your bottled still water is made from asteroid ice, I'm not buying it."

awsome... couldnt stop laughing.

Great post though, never understood the whole "Still water sir?" when eating out. Tap waters just fine (even if the arsnic level is a little high, hey whats life without building a tolerance right?).

The whole bottled still water thing has bothered me for awhile, seeing as though half the companies that sell the bulk of bottle still water are Coke and Pepsi.

If the place has a good source of tap water and its filtered well, Im game!

Scott said...

Bob, I am in agreement, but under the heading of unintended consequences, filtered tap water may have public health value. One of the things developing from the bottled water trend is an increase in dental cavities. No Fluoride.

As for me, I'll take an icy glass of Chateau Garden Hose!

Carolina girl said...

Amen, Bob! I grew up eating raw cookie dough, riding a bike with no helmet, and drinking tap water from the hose. I should be dead by now! What makes me so special now that I need fancy pants packaging around what will taste approximately the same, maybe not as good as what I was raised on? I love taking a 5 gallon jug to my uncle's cabin in the NC mountains and filling it with tap water....$1.29 a for 20 oz cannot beat what locals get without leaving the comfort of home.... Who the hell are folks trying to impress? Yes, I do realize some areas are known for not so good water. This is the exception not the rule.

Robert said...

I had just read an article today on the safety of municipal water (in Canada, mind you). Only somewhat relevant to this post, but I thought I would pass it on anyway as it is interesting.

Carolina Girl 2 said...

Sadly enough I got addicted to bottled water while living in a house with the worst tasting well water ever. No amount of filtering helped. It's a myth that well water always tastes fresh and clean. Now I've moved back into the city and am trying to break my habit. My tap water actually tastes pretty good but I still feel a little revulsion if I drink water that doesn't come out of my 2.5 gallon Deer Park jug.

Bob del Grosso said...

Carolina Girl 2-
I've been there too. I used to own a house in a watershed area where the aquifer was loaded with iron. Water stunk like a swamp. At the time I couldn't afford the kind of filtration system that would take out the minerals and the smell (about 4K) so we just signed up for bottled water.
But I don't see those big 5 gallon bottles as being a major problem -it's the smaller ones that are the most numerous. I'll bet the 5 gallon jugs don't account for 10 percent of the total mass and besides those jugs get refilled and used many times before they are recycled. So go on a sign up for a new service with a clear conscience!

Anonymous said...

I have a bit of sympathy for diners in my locale of San Jose, California which, so far, has the worst water I've ever tasted. I mean, it's NAHSTAY. Restaurants that bother to filter it help a lot and I've followed Alice's advice (between burning oil getting it from Fiji and then disposing of the containers), it's a no-brainer. Shame though that the revenue hit for restaurants is gonna be rough.

georg said...

The only thing I regularly use the bottled water for is the bottle on the headboard (which is a bookcase). Because a botle with a closable nipple is easier to use when half asleep and safer than spilling a glass over the bed and contents. And yes, sometimes we refill with filtered tap water.

Good rant.

Tyrone B. said...


Ship life has done a couple of things for me over the years...even if I am presently back on land.

1. I use a wide mouth screw-top nalgene bottle for water and traveling...filled with tap water or whatevers available.

2. On the ship some of our filters were down (just last month) doctors (which we have on board) told us that even though the water looked dirty or rusty the iron level was fine for adults and we used purchased (what are they 10 or 20 gallon jugs like at offices?) water for the children because the iron level was not good for them.

3. Come work on one of our ships and see what the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone are drinking versus the water systems we train them to maintain theirselves...then cry to me about your tender stomachs (not you personally, but whoever 'they' are).

4. Back here at work at the base...the tap water never tasted sooooo good! (and we have a 'live' water system from wells, certain bacteria needs to remain in it) according to our 'degree' person here who is also consultant over our ships water systems.

If you look real close at some of these million bottles of water that are selling now, they are nothing more than filtered 'tap' water.

redman said...

great post, Bob

Sorcha said...

One thing that I do like about bottled water, though, is that when you're traveling, it's nice to be able to pull into a gas station and get ice-cold water instead of soda.

Charlotte said...

I just dug out my old-fashioned seltzer bottle and ordered replacement hardware for the C02 cartridges -- even though I like Pellegrino, and it's cheap at Costco, I just can't justify shipping *water* from Italy. We have pretty decent water here, better with the Pur filter that attaches to the faucet, and if I can carbonate it myself and avoid throwing out bottles that can't be recycled (we're too far from anywhere for glass recycling -- costs more to ship heavy glass than it's worth), well, then I guess I can take 2 minutes and attach a C02 cartridge to my own water. (And I agree about the ubiquity of nippled water bottles --it's just creepy.)