‘Hippie Food’ author Jonathan Kauffman knows why you eat so much tofu

Jonathan Kauffman
Jessica Khauv/Staff

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Jonathan Kauffman’s “Hippie Food” isn’t a book you want to read on an empty stomach.

“Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat,” tracks the story of the food revolution that accompanied the massive cultural shifts of the 1960s and 1970s.

As the author and San Francisco Chronicle journalist tells it, food was transformed into a political symbol, and what we purchased for ourselves in grocery stores came to represent our values related to poverty, environmentalism, war, etc. Various cuisines from all over the world — including brown rice, steamed vegetables, whole-grain products, yogurt, granola, sprouts and more — entered the American dietary landscape.

“People were choosing a totally different way of cooking and using all these different ingredients they had never heard of before — because of their health effects, they had broader political implications, because of how they would affect the environment,” Kauffman explained in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It was probably the first time Americans started talking about their food as if it had political implications.”

In particular, environmentalists played a fairly significant role in the hippie food movement. The first Earth Day took place in 1970, and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which exposed the health hazards related to the DDT pesticide, was published in 1962 — the public was very much aware of the ways in which our relationship to the environment could impact the food we ate, both positively and negatively.

According to Kauffman, American tree huggers were, for the first time, beginning to pay attention to their own diets, interacting with vegetarianism, organic products and similar eco-conscious trends.

Kauffman’s journalistic training certainly peeks out from between the pages of his book. Each chapter reads like a narrative, one that’s woven together from extensive interviews and thorough research.

“The 1960s and ‘70s were a pretty colorful time, especially for the counterculture, so I wanted to capture these stories,” Kauffman explained of his approach. It would be impossible to tell the story of this “grassroots movement” chronologically, as everything was happening simultaneously. Instead, each chapter focuses on a different region of the country and the unique ways that region contributed to our changing diets.

Berkeley, in fact, is one of the regions Kauffman focuses on in the chapter “Tofu, the Political Dish.” The “counterculture capital,” of course, was at the heart of 1960s and 1970s social overhaul.

“People were coming from all over the country to the Bay Area, to both Berkeley and San Francisco, to check out the scene — and they would take the ideas they encountered there, and the foods, back to wherever they lived,” Kauffman explicated.

The story starts with Frances Moore Lappé, a graduate school dropout who entered UC Berkeley’s Agricultural Economics Library with questions about global famine and whether it really was impossible that we could feed the world’s entire population, as so many had postulated before her.

Months of research birthed a groundbreaking discovery — if we stopped feeding so much of our excess grains and legumes to livestock, we could turn the tide against world hunger and still maintain sufficiently nutritious diets. She published a book in 1971 called “Diet for a Small Planet,” which included new vegetarian recipes and launched the soybean (particularly in its tofu form) to the front of the growing shift away from meat products.

Kauffman also mentioned another Berkeley-founded movement: the food conspiracies.

“It was a bunch of younger folks —  a lot of them students — who formed these buying clubs to buy food cheaply, and they would buy in bulk and gather together to split up the food,” Kauffman said. “They didn’t want to call them buying clubs; they called them conspiracies, because it felt like a political act.”

This introduces an important point about the financial accessibility of healthy food — which, according to Kauffman, wasn’t quite on the minds of hippies.

“Everything they did was based on the idea of bringing healthy food to people and keeping costs low, so everybody could have access to it. But that was dependent on all these structural factors — rent was really low, there was a lot of social support, a lot of these folks were really young, so they had a lot more time to volunteer, they didn’t have kids or other responsibilities,” Kauffman explained.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the costs of rent increased, and the profit margins proved to be unsustainable. But the allure of healthy, high-quality food remained intact, and large companies such as Whole Foods were prepared to meet the demands of upper-middle-class Americans. So now, you might be shelling out $6 for a bag of granola.

The upper middle class, of course, is often synonymous with whiteness — and it’s true that the hippie movements were composed overwhelmingly of white Americans. According to Kauffman, this significantly “limited the scope and the reach of the diet,” but it also opened up an avenue for new types of cuisine to enter everyday diets.

“People were getting interested in Indian spirituality, because the Beatles were practicing meditation. So they would start studying with a guru or start reading about Indian spirituality, and that would encourage them to make curry.” Kauffman said. “The curry they would make would be these very simple spice mixes that I think anyone visiting America from India would barely recognize. But it also at the same time was introducing a lot of white Americans to these flavors and these spice mixtures and making them more mainstream.”

Now that the transformative period of the 1960s and 1970s is decades into the past, it’s easy to wonder what might be the next big movement along the food circuit. Kauffman hopes to see co-ops make a resurgence, as well as a growing emphasis on low-till agriculture.

And it’s more than likely, he suggests, that modern fads such gluten-free or paleo diets or Whole30 programs will have lasting implications on the next generation of hungry Americans. These types of impacts can already be measured — just look, for example, to Berkeley’s high restaurant turnover, making space for trendier local juicieries or healthy shops.

“I think all of that food is a direct descendant of the food of the 1970s,” Kauffman notes. “When I get a grain bowl or a juice smoothie at a little shop, I feel like I’m eating exactly the same food I would be eating in 1970, except it’s more colorful. It’s got different types of vegetables and a lot of flavors they weren’t aware of in 1972.”

In short, the choices we make about the food we consume rarely occur in a vacuum, and they’re often a direct result of the cultural history that’s come before us. And more importantly, food can serve as a remarkable agent of change.

“People were really rethinking the way they ate and what they ate and trying to come up with a healthy food that would be environmentally sensitive,” said Kauffman. “They really introduced a lot of changes that stuck around. … I think it shows how much effect grassroots movements can have.”

Jonathan Kauffman will appear at the panel “Alice Waters and Jonathan Kauffman: A Revolution in Food”on April 29 at 11 a.m. at the San Francisco Chronicle Stage in the Park as part of the Bay Area Book Festival. He will also speak at “Creating a Better Way to Eat: Hippies, Hawkers and Starfruits” on April 29 at 3:45 p.m. at Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].