How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat
By Jonathan Kauffman
344 pp. William Morrow. $26.99
Review in today’s NYTimes by Michael Pollan
For a revolution that supposedly failed, the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s scored a string of enduring victories. Environmentalism, feminism, civil and gay rights, as well as styles of music, fashion, politics, therapy and intoxication: In more ways than many of us realize, we live in a world created by the ’60s. (Though, as our politics regularly attest, some of us are rather less pleased to be living in that world than others.) Jonathan Kauffman’s briskly entertaining history, “Hippie Food,” makes a convincing case for adding yet another legacy to that list: the way we eat.
Kauffman has more in mind than the menu items that the ’60s served up: the tofu, tempeh and tamari, the granola and yogurt, the nut loafs and avocado sandwiches on whole wheat bread with their poufs of alfalfa sprouts that “smell as if a field of grass were having sex”; hard as it is to imagine now, all of these foods were radical novelties before 1970 or so. But the counterculture transformed much more than the American menu; it also changed the way we grow our food and how we think about purchasing and consuming it. “Eating brown rice was a political act,” he writes, just as much “as wearing your hair long or refusing to shave your armpits.” How this curious idea came to seem right and true (and to outlast the hairy armpits) is the historical question at the heart of “Hippie Food.”
Kauffman, who was born in 1971, comes at his subject as a child of children of the ’60s: He grew up on brown rice and quite likes it. A former line cook and food critic in the Bay Area, Kauffman is now a reporter for the food section of The San Francisco Chronicle, and his book is the work of an enterprising journalist who has interviewed many in the cast of hippie farmers, cooks, communards and food artisans who together forged what Kauffman asks us to regard as a new and “unique, self-contained cuisine.”
“The food Americans were eating in the mid-1960s resembled nothing that any civilization on Earth had ever eaten before,” Kauffman reminds us. By then, a series of food-processing innovations developed during World War II — powdered soups and juices, cake mixes, dehydrated coffee, etc. — had infiltrated American food culture, which lacked the deep roots that might have allowed it to withstand the influences of marketers, faddists, kooks and ideologues of every stripe. Americans, Kauffman notes, have long displayed “a queer eagerness to abandon the culinary wisdom of the generations that preceded them.” In the ’60s that meant eating things your parents had never heard of; if they ate white bread, you ate brown.