San Francisco Chronicle food writer and restaurant critic Jonathan Kauffman wondered how the popular hippie food he ate as a child in the ’70s made it all the way to his hometown of Elkhart, Indiana. His resulting book, Hippie Food: How Back-To-The-Landers, Longhairs, And Revolutionaries Changed The Way We Eat, is a fascinating chronicle that delves into the deep backstories behind items as seemingly bland as brown rice, tofu, and whole-wheat bread. Brown rice was the hallmark of the macrobiotic diet, for example, and tofu started its rise after the publication of the seminal 1971 volume Diet For A Small Planet.
Kauffman traveled to the sites of former communes in Vermont and erstwhile food co-ops in Texas to explore how the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s translated into food, and how the effects of that movement can still be spotted in our food culture today, from CSAs to Whole Foods to brands like Stonyfield Yogurt.
We were so taken with this book (read our review above), we followed up with Kauffman to ask him some more questions about his journey and how researching this book affected his own diet.
The Takeout: What were some of the most surprising revelations you came across while researching this book?
Jonathan Kauffman: A lot, especially how much of this movement existed before the counterculture went off. Especially macrobiotics, that was a surprise to me. It was one of those things that was on the fringe of my consciousness, this diet that could cure cancer, and briefly during the ’80s a lot of people who had AIDS were using it, thought it would help keep them alive. I didn’t realize that it had this whole philosophical side and that it pre-dated the counterculture and how strange some of the things George Ohsawa was promoting were. And also, how influential they were how, and how they were really in place to shape this whole new diet.
And I continue to be fascinated by the health food folks. I think there’s a lot more in there to look at.
TO: It seems like every day there’s some new food that we all should absolutely be eating, and I’m so curious about how that changes. Like I remember the oat bran craze in the late ’80s, I felt like I should be eating oat bran, but I had no idea why?
JK: Or like apple cider vinegar. I’ve been talking to people, and they’ll say “My mom has decided she needs apple cider vinegar. She has heard about this so she’s decided to have a few tablespoons a day.” And just, where does that come from? We hear these specious claims about a product and we rush to embrace it.
And I’m the first one to do that too. I have Bragg’s apple cider vinegar in my house and I use it, thinking “oh, maybe it’s more pro-macrobiotic.” We’re so eager to believe anything that will make us smarter and prettier and healthier and skinnier and it’s sort of fascinating to me how much that shapes how we as Americans eat.
I do a lot of reporting at the Chronicle about alternative meats and a lot of this new technology about plant-based meat and cultured meat. And every single owner of company that I’ve talked to has a whole litany about these products and they echo her point by point by point. I had one presentation at Impossible Foods, you know the Impossible Burger that bleeds? And the presenter was giving this scientific explanation about the ecological impact of meat. And I came up to her afterward and said have you ever read Diet For A Small Planet? And she was in her early thirties and she was like, “No, What’s that?” You might want to go back and read this because 50 years ago, they were saying the exact same thing.
TO: How did researching this book affect how you eat? It definitely made me want to revisit being a vegetarian, which I gave up several years ago.
JK: Yeah, I definitely eat more whole grains than I did. I made my peace with brown rice, for example. Because the brown rice you get in restaurants, it’s so grainy, and they badly cook it. And I learned from the macrobiotic folks to pressure-cook it and how much sweeter and tastier it could be. And I definitely add more whole-grain flour to everything I’m baking. And part of that’s research and part of that is there’s just good whole-grain flour out there now.
My mom emailed me after she read the book and said, “Can I get a copy of the Moosewood cookbook?” She who had cooked all of this food in the ’70s and had moved away from it, was moving toward it again.
TO: And that was your impetus for writing the book in the first place, right? Figuring out how that food made it to your dinner table in the Midwest.
JK: It was... kind of my own personal nostalgia of people who grew up with a lot of the same memories. As somebody who was a restaurant critic for a long time, and spent a long time chasing after the most delicious food, it was kind of a thrill to spend all this time researching mediocre food, and look at the importance of this everybody food that people sort of pooh-pooh, and the more I researched, the more significant it all seemed.
TO: Like that really basic brown bread that was going to feed all those people in Haight-Asbury, but it wasn’t the best bread ever.
JK: And part of it also was forgiving, as somebody who’s Generation X and growing up with the as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s and all that idealism just seemed like it was under attack all the time, and I absorbed some of that too, and to go back and kind of appreciate how young a lot of these people were when they were trying to introduce a new diet, and how inexperienced they were with food. But also, just to see past my own cynicism past the failures of the movement the logistical failures, to see what they were trying to do.
TO: I’m a little wary of Whole Foods. It all seems so corporatized. Like, “This yogurt’s really great for you and it’s only seven dollars!”
JK: Oh yeah, I feel like that’s become the shape of the movement. I feel very conflicted about where that movement is today, realizing all of the structural factors that made it possible for people in the co-op movement to make this healthy food so cheap: low rents both commercial and residential, low cost of living, people who go on food stamps to help subsidize their own cheap labor because they really believed in the movement. A lot of volunteer labor, all this structural stuff made the food inexpensive. Now when you talk to people about that period, people from the ’50s and ’60s or ’60s and ’70s, when we grew up, we realized that this whole movement was based on cheap rent and free labor, so you couldn’t sustain it, logistically.
But I get that argument, especially we’re talking more about labor conditions and what people who grow and make food are paid, but I also I kind of miss that desire to make food inexpensive, healthy food available. The idealism behind that… I wish they could recapture some of that and finally channel it.
TO: What are some ways that could happen?
JK: The idealist in me still believes in the co-op model. I just did a piece about the new co-op model because there’s a new rise in co-ops, and in areas it’s really driven by the idea of local economies. And in some areas, like the southeast, from national co-op organizers, there are communities who had their local market displaced by a Walmart, and then the Walmart pulled out because they weren’t making enough money, and they’re using the co-op model to help provide access to food.
I keep believing that it’s shifting. If we as a country wanted to make healthy food more accessible, especially vegetables and fruits and whole grains, we have to rethink farm subsidies. I was talking to a farmer in Tennessee a year ago and saying that and she was saying “I think they should just remove all subsidies period. That way we’re all on a level playing field, so that people who produce corn and people who produce broccoli are on the same playing field.” I think there’s room in the subsidy program to support vegetable and fruit growers.
TO: What’s your opinion on CSAs?
JK: I subscribe to them off and on. I think the reason why we have a CSA is to force ourselves to cook so many vegetables per week. It seems to be for small family farms that want to operate within driving distance to a city, it’s a solid model, but even then they’re facing competition, from other CSAs and from mainstream groceries.
TO: Your book kicks off with this look at popular health-food restaurants in mid-century California, like The Source, which Woody Allen made famous in Annie Hall. Now in my neighborhood in Chicago, we have a foraging restaurant. As a restaurant critic, what other kinds of health trends do you see?
JK: Just as a side note, in the 1990s when the raw food movement took off in San Francisco, there was a restaurant called Raw, and the chef’s name was Juliano and he would serve a Golden Gate Salad, which was apparently greens or weeds, depending on how you want to label them that he had collected across the street in the park.
These days I’m calling it yoga cuisine: the grain bowls, the green juices and the chia puddings. To me it seems like a direct descendant of the 1960s health food movement. Just the fact that it has all these superfoods in it, to make you healthier and prettier, it’s marketed in this sort of transformational way that feels very much like why people were going to The Source restaurant.
TO: Every day it seems like there’s a new story about fasting, or what to eat, or when to eat. In the face of all this information, what do you honestly think is the best way to eat?
JK: I read all those stories too, and for me, it just ends up being about balance. We get so obsessed about the particulars and forget to look at the big picture. My little mantra is just that I need to eat a lot of vegetables, and if I make that my focus, it all seems to balance out.