Let's do the time warp

Diving into Hippie Food

The United States has been embroiled in social upheaval for years, with constant waves of progressive protest and advocacy. Reactionary government forces, from the police to federal agencies, have cracked down on those trying to make change; and government surveillance casts a heavy shadow over leftist groups. Despite the progress the nation has made in civil rights over the past few years, Black people are still facing discrimination, disenfranchisement, and death at the hands of the police. More and more people are awakening to the basic tenets of feminism, but women still have miles to go to achieve equality. Meanwhile, the country has been tied up in a proxy war for years and it no longer feels as though the moral superiority of American exceptionalism is as defensible as it used to be. Overall, it feels like progress hasn’t been able to move fast enough or push hard enough to defeat the forces gathered against it and move the country further along the arc of justice.

Is it the year 2021, or 1971?

In the present day, some progressives see this situation and dig deeper, fight harder, and invest more of their time in the true work of social justice movements—public education, organizing, protest, and advocacy. Others, legitimately overwhelmed and exhausted, retreat from the public fight with the intention of living their own lives more justly: reading about social justice issues, shopping at POC and women-owned businesses, buying organic and fair trade products, trying to cut down their individual carbon footprints. 

In the 1970s, young, disenchanted progressives were facing a similar dilemma. What if instead of trying to fight back against powers that felt insurmountable, they tried to start society over, pursuing personal philosophies and creating communities that played by different rules?

In Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat, author Jonathan Kauffman explores how this particular revolutionary sensibility played out in the food world—and ultimately had far-reaching impacts that we still feel today. Young people in the ‘70s would be the ones to make vegetarianism just a bit less niche; bring back home baked bread and valorize from-scratch cooking; and define what organic farming meant and why it was an important counter to pesticide-heavy industrial agriculture. Leaders of this period would rise from tiny collectively-owned restaurants, farm communes, and food co-ops to pen bestselling cookbooks and found food industry paragons like pasture-raised pork company Niman Ranch (now owned by factory farmer Perdue); organic dairy Stonyfield Farms (now owned by Lactalis, the second largest dairy company in the world); and Whole Foods (I’m sure I don’t need to tell you who owns this one). 

As Kauffman puts it, 

The counterculture...embroidered the ubiquitous, populist subject of food with all the other ideas of how life should be: how people should be treating the earth, what their bodies needed, how they should engage in work. Because income wasn’t as important as intention, and because the economy was still flush and the cost of living was so much lower, millions of young Americans gave their time and their bodies to build a new infrastructure for growing and selling this good food. 

The impacts Baby Boomers (yes, Boomers) brought to the food world were built on a clear relationship between the personal and political: eating well had implications for the health of the planet and of our society. To live this ethos, they had to learn how to build meals that bucked the American focus on meat at the center of the plate and turn back the clock on their cooking and farming practices.

This is ostensibly a book review newsletter, so let’s start this journey with a bestseller that helped popularize vegetarianism in the U.S.—a book which both made the case for letting go of meat and provided guidelines and recipes for building vegetarian meals. This was Diet for a Small Planet, published in 1971 by Frances Moore Lappé. As a grad student at UC Berkeley, Lappé was trying to understand the root causes of poverty and hunger. At the time, there was a common belief that global population growth was going to outstrip our farming capacity, meaning there would not be enough food to go around. In her research, Lappé discovered that the United States was growing more than enough food; the problem was that a huge proportion was being fed to animals rather than humans—as she would write in her book, “fully one-half of the harvested agricultural land in the U.S. is planted with feed crops.” What was more, animals were “protein factories in reverse:” we had to feed them much more protein than we ultimately could get from eating them. 

So if we were going to feed the world, we needed to stop focusing farm production on feeding animals. And Lappé was ready to teach readers how to change their diets, going into great detail on how to get enough protein from vegetarian meals. Her teaching that industrial agriculture’s focus on meat had a detrimental impact on society resonated, and her recipes offered a straightforward way to put her policies into practice. Hippie Food author Kauffman notes:

Diet for a Small Planet changed the way millions of Americans thought about how their country produced food. It hit the zeitgeist just as the counterculture was taking up the idea of eating as a political act and converted millions of people to vegetarianism, at least for a year or two. 

As people started to pay attention to how the food system status quo was impacting the planet, they were also questioning what was going into their food. As Anna Thomas described in her 1972 cookbook The Vegetarian Epicure

How many people, I wonder, have never even tasted bread? It may seem absurd, but I’m sure there are many people today who don’t know the taste of true bread. This wasn’t so in earlier times, when whole grains were coarsely found between millers’ stones and baked regularly into large, richly dark and crusty loaves; bread was still revered as the staff of life. But now, large enterprising firms call themselves bakeries and lightly take the name of bread in vain, attaching it to that inflated, chalky mass that never knew a crumb and is scorned even by molds, no matter how stale it gets.

Young people came to understand that all-purpose white flour lost its nutritional value in processing and had it added back chemically. They started learning to bake from scratch and brought whole wheat flour back to the table. In 1970, The Tassajara Bread Book, a naturalistic little tome clad in brown paper and printed with simple and instructive line drawings, brought readers across the country the bread recipes and baking know-how of the head cook of a remote Buddhist monastery in northern California. Its approachable, gentle tone and flavor-forward breads would turn the book into a smash hit, and it has now sold roughly 750,000 copies since first printing. 

But the opposition to industrial food wasn’t limited to bread. Kauffman explains that people began to rail against anything “lab-manufactured, factory-made, chemically flavored and colored and preserved” that “looked created, not grown or made by human hands.” By 1979, you had cookbooks like Better Than Store-Bought, whose introduction promised to please “people who love good, real food and are sad to see it disappearing. Those, for instance, who might yearn to taste genuine sour cream again, not the thick, chalk-white stuff we usually find in the market. Or cream cheese without vegetable gums and preservatives.”

Turning against industrial agriculture and commercial food became a key component of an ideology that rejected mainstream government and corporate forces. Escalating this ethos even further, young people abandoned the corporatization and conformity of cities and suburbs and fled to rural towns to create communities where they could live their beliefs. Once they got “back to the land,” of course, they had to feed themselves, and they had an opportunity to do it without the adulteration of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and practices that ultimately harmed the land which were characteristic of industrial farms. As Kauffman explains, 

The back-to-the-landers...saw, in small-scale organic farming, a reflection of their own desires to depopulate the cities, disassemble the great machineries of state and corporation, and return to a more authentic existence. If leaving the cities was a negative movement, building up a new form of agriculture was a positive one.

Knowledge of the health risks of pesticides for farm workers and consumers and the unsustainable impacts of chemical fertilizers on soil health had been growing and circulating for a few decades, and the back-to-the-landers seized on these ideas as they started their own farms. To learn how grow food outside of mainstream methodologies, they turned to resources like the magazines Organic Gardening and Farming, which had been around since 1942 but whose readership swelled to 400,000 subscribers by 1968; and Mother Earth News, founded in 1970, which combined intellectual articles with homesteading how-tos. People commonly traveled in between communes across the country to learn from each other, or could visit farm schools like the one founded by Samuel Kaymen in Vermont. Kaymen would go on to found the Natural Organic Farming Association in 1971, which would eventually evolve into a network of cooperatives that worked to popularize organic farming practices and support local food systems through farmer’s markets. It would later become known as the Northeast Organic Farming Association, with seven state chapters and 5,000 members; and in 1978, develop a certification for organic farming that would be the national standard until the USDA finally started overseeing organic standards in the year 2000. 

People have recognized for at least 50 years that the global industrial food system isn’t structured to benefit people; it’s structured to benefit corporate profits. Yet the delay it took the federal government to pay attention to organic farming is just one example of how hard it was to bring food justice concerns into the mainstream. 

Counterculture Baby Boomers tried to build new systems on the fringes of the old. This was only possible because the young and primarily white people of this movement had the mobility, means, and privilege to create self-sustaining communities removed from the urban and suburban centers. Today, some of their ideas about the impact of your plate on the wider world have become widespread, but the problems of their privileged approach have come along for the ride, too. For affluent and aspirational eaters, shopping at the farmer’s market; buying organic; cutting down on meat consumption or only buying pasture-raised meats; stocking the pantry with single-source, sustainably grown ingredients; and more examples of consumer advocacy have become the primary way to demonstrate that you care about the problems in the food system.

Meanwhile, the critical puzzle of how to disrupt the destructive global food economy remains. How to get healthy, organic, and affordable food into more people’s hands in a way that’s sustainable and equitable is still a circle that food justice advocates and activists are trying to square today. 

Through the next several issues, we’ll explore some different approaches to the food ideologies of the counterculture through its cookbooks. We’ll get to see some authors that created and articulated a real link between their food and their politics; and others that just wanted to make good food that happened to align with countercultural principles. Among the many ways people lived “the personal is political” through their cooking 50 years ago, I hope to find some lessons and inspiration for how to be more active and responsible to food justice in the present day. 

Next issue: With The Vegetarian Epicure, film student Anna Thomas turned her dinner party recipes into a foundational text for a generation of vegetarian chefs, proving that meatless meals could be as rich and refined as anything in the pages of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

P.S. There are no credits on the illustrations because I drew them. :)