Much of the food that was introduced to Americans by the counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s still influences what we eat today, food reporter and author Jonathan Kauffman says.
Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson talks with Kauffman (@jonkauffman) about “Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat.”
On the origins of the hippie food movement
“It was sort of a funny patchwork cuisine that took ideas and ingredients from the health food movements from Southern California of the 1930s to the 1950s, from macrobiotics, which was a philosophy and diet introduced to America by George Asawa that was basically a Japanese peasant diet with a sort of spiritual bent. And then the counterculture’s own ideas about politics and how eating could be a political act. And then they flavored it all together with the flavors of non-Western countries, bringing in a lot of ingredients and foods that really weren’t part of the American diet at that time.”
On brown rice’s role and importance
“Brown rice was important for two reasons. One was that it was a whole grain, and I think counterculture kids were really interested in avoiding industrialized food, and the way to do that, they felt, was to get food that was as pure and whole as possible so they could avoid any processing. The other reason was that macrobiotics — this diet that focused on balancing yin and yang in the body — was based on the idea that brown rice was the ‘principal grain.’ And so in fact, in the early macrobiotic diet, they believed that if you ate nothing but brown rice and miso soup for 10 days, you could completely change the cells in your body … to bring yourself in balance with the universe, which would bring you health and also much more happiness.”
On how drug use influenced eating habits
“There definitely was that influence, especially with early macrobiotics — people would get off LSD or stop smoking pot, and do the brown rice diet in order to sort of purify themselves. What I heard more from people was that a lot of folks converted to vegetarianism after doing acid, and feeling this sense of oneness with the universe and feeling like they didn’t want to eat animals after that.”
On the move away from white bread toward whole-wheat bread
“Less than 10 percent of bread sold in stores in America was whole-wheat bread at that time. But again, it was this movement to try and take control over the diets and wrest control from the corporations that were making food. And a lot of young kids really were becoming aware that not only vitamins were being lost in the milling process, but they were introducing chemicals and stabilizers and all of these things that they didn’t know what they were, into this sort of fluffy, white, tasteless bread.”
On counterculture food trends coming as a reaction to pesticide use, additives and processing
“The ’60s and ’70s were a period when we as a country were taking stock of the repercussions of using pesticides like DDT. Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ came out in 1964, and it had a huge impact on both the psyches, and on sort of the politics around using pesticides. But also there were other exposes about the potential dangers of chemical sweeteners and additives. And so I think counterculture kids decided they’d might as well just get rid of it all, and that would be the safest option.”
On Jim Baker, later known as Father Yod, who founded a natural foods restaurant in Los Angeles and led The Source Family
“I think members of The Source Family are comfortable with that word ‘cult.’ He had been a bodybuilder, aspiring actor who moved out to LA in the 1950s, and he and his wife opened this early natural foods restaurant that was nothing like hippie food. But he had a kind of conversion experience, partially after he kinda committed a couple murders in self-defense, and went down … he had kind of a breakdown, and rediscovered himself and food through spirituality. So he eventually became Father Yod, and was teaching a colorful spirituality. But it also was combined with a largely raw foods diet. And so he and his followers all lived together in a big mansion, they all dressed in white … long-flowing beards. He had 13 wives, and they had this incredibly successful vegetarian restaurant in LA that drew everybody from producers to rock stars to the general public. … I think they felt like the food that they were eating would uplift them spiritually as well as physically.”
On the connection between the hippie food movement and farm-to-table
“There’s a very direct link in the sense of the back-to-the-landers, who moved from cities to small towns and ended up becoming the backbone of the organic movement, they helped set up farmers markets in a lot of areas in order to directly sell their food to customers. They made connections with restaurants, and eventually as organic produce became more beautiful and varied, restaurants definitely bought in.”
On the hippie food movement going mainstream
“What was really remarkable is, to look at 1970 and what nutritionists were saying about things like whole-wheat bread and brown rice, and they were sort of pooh-poohing the nutritional value of all those foods, to now, and the USDA nutritional guidelines recommend that we eat, you know, half of our grains should be whole grains. And I think it’s because that generation, their ideas about health were … there was a lot of soundness to it, and science ended up backing them up.”
By Jonathan Kauffman
The Sunlight Cafe, Seattle’s oldest surviving vegetarian restaurant, has been around for so long now that my lunch there is as familiar as it is a target for ridicule.
Cubes of sweet potato and U’s of celery bob on the surface of a chunky “Mexican bean fiesta soup,” the scent of cumin surfing on the steam rising off its surface. Alfalfa sprouts jut out of an avocado havarti sandwich as if its toasted whole-wheat shell were a squashed-on hat. A side salad is drizzled with tahini-lemon dressing and speckled with sunflower and sesame seeds. Tack on a slice of nutloaf, and you’d have a complete 1970s feast, the antithesis of all-American meat and potatoes, the kind of food that would still be associated with hippies even 50 years after San Francisco’s Summer of Love.
For those of you who didn’t grow up eating lentil and brown-rice casseroles, it may be hard to recognize what came to be called “hippie food.” That’s because so many of the ingredients that the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s adopted, defying the suspicion and disgust of the rest of the country, have become foods many of us eat every day.
The organic chard you bought at Kroger last week? In the early 1970s, farming organically was considered a delusional act. The granola-yogurt parfait your coworker just picked up at Starbucks? In 1971, both granola and yogurt were foreign substances, their reputation as tied to long-haired peaceniks as pourover coffee is to lumberjack beards and high-waisted jeans. Back then, whole-wheat bread had disappeared from grocery stores. Hummus wasn’t a childhood staple but a dish only spotted in Middle Eastern markets and vegetarian cafes.
Although the 19th century and early 20th century saw the invention of canning, freezing, and other methods of processing food, World War II marked a turning point in American manufacturers’ ability to manipulate our food into forms never seen in nature.
Hippie food was a rejection of industrialized food as much as it was an embrace of new ingredients and new flavors. Eating brown rice was a political act, just as wearing your hair long or refusing to shave your armpits could subject you to ridicule and harrassment.
The cuisine that the counterculture took to in the late 1960s, and then helped introduce to the mainstream in the 1970s, embraced whole grains and legumes; organic, fresh vegetables; soy foods like tofu and tempeh; nutrition-boosters like wheat germ and sprouted grains; and flavors from Eastern European, Asian, and Latin American cuisines. The food young bohemians concocted with all these ingredients was often vegetarian, sometimes macrobiotic, and occasionally inedible.
Young Americans wanted to strip their cuisine back to its pre-industrial roots. And then, as they tried to figure out what they should eat instead of military-industrial trash, a reactionary generation sought council from the fringes.
They found it in health food faddists, rogue nutritionists, mystical German farmers, Japanese dietary prophets, and nameless cooks from countries their parents had barely dreamed of visiting. That Harvard nutritionists or newspaper journalists thought these sources were all bunkum only validated that the counterculture was on the right track.
Adapted from HIPPIE FOOD © Copyright 2018 by Jonathan Kauffman. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.