from counterculture to contemporary American cuisine in Jonathan Kauffman’s “Hippie Food” 

A poignant look at how the revolutionary “hippie” food of the 1960s and 70s — from sprouted whole grains and legumes to organic produce, soy, and macrobiotics — evolved into what we eat today.

For many, the word “hippie” conjures up images of flared jeans and fringes, music and marijuana. It’s associated with being dirty, lazy, high. But what Jonathan Kauffman posits in Hippie Food is that the alternative, politically-charged lifestyle of the counterculture — of which the hippies were indelibly a part — is how our distinctly American cuisine came to be.

But before diving into the unconventional, albeit charismatic, leaders pioneering the movement, Kauffman sets the political stage, providing insight into the state of post-war America.

“World War II marked a turning point in American manufacturers’ ability to manipulate our food into forms never seen in nature,” explains Kauffman, [which meant that] “the food Americans were eating in the mid-1960s resembled nothing that any civilization on Earth had ever eaten before.”

For one, there was the new technology allowing us to produce dried soup, pudding mixes, canned fruit, and ready-to-eat meals. But more disturbingly were the 65 approved pesticides that came out of the war — including DDT, a chemical invented by scientists researching nerve gases.

Come 1959, American farms were producing 60% more than they had at the start of the war, with fertilizer use doubling over the course of the 1960s. And household spending on food was dropping fast, from 24% to 10% over the course of the decade.

Setting food aside for a moment, Kauffman traces the international events shaping the impressionable baby boom generation: growing up with nuclear bomb drills during the Cold War, the violence of segregation, the March on Washington, the assassination of the president, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the violence and protests around the Vietnam War, and the Nixon presidency.

And from all this developed the prevailing sentiment that “we need to take all those new values that this country has impressed upon us from childhood — the liberty and equality, of course, plus peace, love, and personal liberation, too — and build a society around them. The revolution has to come from within.”

Just as growing out your hair, refusing to shave your armpits, and embracing the sexual revolution was political, so too was eating alfafa sprouts, avocado, and havarti cheese all sandwiched between two pieces of dense whole wheat bread.

The subject of food was inextricable with all other ideas of how life should be — including how people should treat the earth, and each other. And although we look back at the desire to return cuisine to its preindustrial roots and consider it the start of the revolution, at the time it was merely a gut reaction of a generation.

Kauffman kicks off what he refers to as the “pre-history” of hippie food by journeying back more than half a century to 1958 in the “salad bowl of the country,” sunny Southern California. He introduces us to Paul Chappuis Bragg and Gayelord Hauser, both of whom were pioneering the notion that health and beauty were one in the same just as the concept of a movie star (and all its requisite physical characteristics) were crystallizing.

From there, Kauffman turns to the yin and yang of macrobiotics, a system of thought based on the teachings of a Japanese philosopher by the name of George Ohsawa who was pioneering a brown rice-based diet unlike anything anyone in America was eating.

After brown rice comes brown bread, along with the dietary gurus proselytizing about the horrors of nutritionally deficient, commercial white bread. Kauffman explains the sentiment shift that occurred when scientists discovered how to enrich flour (and thus market it as “vitamin-packed”), along with the palpable paranoia that remained over what exactly was slipping into one’s food. But perhaps the biggest legacy of the whole wheat hysteria was the conviction that maintaining health was in one’s power and illness, preventable.

Next up, soybeans: a complete (and affordable) protein that Frances Moore Lappé singlehandedly introduced to the country by way of her book, Diet for a Small Planet. And in doing so, explains Kauffman, she converted millions of people to vegetarianism just as the counterculture was taking up the idea of eating as a political act.

Kauffman also dedicates an entire chapter to the most visible legacy of the 70s food movement: organic agriculture. Not only did this movement reject the input-output, industry view of farming, but it implied a return to self-sufficiency and reflected the groups desire to “disassemble the great machineries of state and corporations, and return to a more authentic existence.”

From the organic movement, Kauffman transitions to vegetarianism — a diet that ran rampant among the counterculture. But with function prioritized over flavor for so many years, plant-based food developed a reputation for being bland and, well, brown — until it underwent a radical, globally-inspired transformation between the late 60s and 70s. Because if American cookbooks couldn’t teach people how to make this cuisine delicious, the rest of the world surely could.

This shift wouldn’t have occurred had the baby boomers not grown up in a time of European peace and education about Asia by way of television. In fact, it was these very influences that caused the generation to cultivate an awareness and consciousness of faraway countries in a way few generations prior had. There was a sense of what Kauffman refers to as “cultural porousness and openness to innovation” that found its way into vegetarian cookbooks of the 70s.

And to end, Kauffman looks back at the emergence of food co-ops — a “hippie” trend of sharing vegetables in a spirit of “participatory democracy” that allowed the counterculture to abandon hierarchy and take up the role of consumer activists. But considering how they had came to view food as fiercely political (thanks in many ways to Lappé), the movement towards co-ops wasn’t that surprising. Plus, as Kauffman points out, so many were already living a communal lifestyle.

“The concept of collective buying, directly from suppliers, appealed to a generation that had been organizing for antiwar protests, direct actions, consciousness-raising groups, and communes since its teenage years.”

Whether you’re a fierce proponent of voting with your dollar, or just curious about how brands like Stonyfield, Cascadian Farm, and Whole Foods came to be, Hippie Food is a must-read. With an eloquent, meticulously researched narrative style à la Michael Pollan and Dan Barber, Kauffman’s words reveal a world of insight into the power of food and its far-reaching political, ethical, and cultural implications.

While you’re at it, give My Life in France a read as well. Another 10/10 for SURE.

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