Ironies of the Food Revolution

food revolutionEven while the U.S. was mired in the convenience foods of the 1950’s, the food revolution in the U.S. was starting to gather steam.  Julia Child, the future progenitor of TV cooking shows was cooking her way through France. James Beard, the so-called “Dean of American cookery”, was using his cooking schools in New York and Oregon, to promote a genuine interest in food, and Craig Claiborne was transforming the sleepy New York Times food section into an authoritative source of knowledge about a variety of cuisines. Meanwhile, soldiers returning from Europe had acquired a taste for European cuisine, and prosperous Americans were traveling to foreign lands and being exposed to what seemed to them to be exotic foods. Moreover, while mainstream America only dabbled in various cuisines of the world, immigrant communities kept their ties to the old country alive by preserving some of their food traditions, albeit significantly transformed by American ingredients. The role of these immigrant enclaves would play a crucial role in America’s food revolution.

Thus, by the 1960’s, the ingredients were in place for some Americans to begin their exploration of flavor. But it was a localized phenomenon. Much of the action was located in New York while the rest of the country was gorging on fast food and canned vegetables. The upwardly mobile were intent on throwing better parties, especially when the boss was coming to dinner, and this required at least the appearance of a trendy approach toward food. But this interest in entertaining was a means to an end—the emphasis was on impressing the guests, not on flavor for its own sake. In mid-20th Century America, food was seen much as it had been throughout our history—something with only instrumental value.

But interest in eating better for its own sake was slowly growing and needed only a spark to set it off. And that spark improbably was ignited among the counter-cultural ferment of Berkeley, California. In 1964, Alice Waters transferred from the staid, conventional campus of the University of California in Santa Barbara, to the political maelstrom of UC Berkeley and immediately became attracted to the sense of community that had taken root among the campus radicals of the Free Speech Movement. A trip to France awakened her interest in food, especially when prepared from fresh ingredients, and upon return she proceeded to feed her friends French cuisine-inspired meals.

These meals did not quite fit the “proletarian diet” through which her friends signaled solidarity with the poor. But Waters would have none of this. “As Alice used to put it, ‘Just because you’re a revolutionary doesn’t mean your idea of a good meal should be Chef Boyardee ravioli reheated in a dog dish,’ says Tom Luddy, another UC-Berkeley grad and member of the FSM circle, who ran the local art-movie theater, the Telegraph Repertory Cinema.” Waters reportedly argued: “It’s not enough to liberate yourself politically, to liberate yourself sexually—you have to liberate all the senses.” Eating together was a socially progressive act that was threatened by the TV dinner/ frozen food culture of the U.S

With a little help from some similarly-inspired friends, Waters opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971—an amateurish operation but one that resonated with a San Francisco clientele who had traveled to Europe and understood the idea behind this re-invention of American cuisine. The rest, as they say, is history. Waters and friends were responsible for promoting the principle of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, the importance of organic food, and the prominence of the forager, as the person in the restaurant who seeks out the best local ingredients. Chez Panisse was not the first restaurant to take this approach, which of course was common in Europe, but it was the first restaurant to succeed in amplifying the message to Americans.

This was one of the great ironies of the food revolution but also an indicator of its power. The New York food world and the hippies of the Bay area were worlds apart. New York represented the establishment, upper middle-class bourgeois interests, the jet set that could afford to travel, track down expensive ingredients, and leisurely play at the good life. Waters and her crew were nurtured in the crucible of the counter-culture where material wealth was considered crass if not immoral and the establishment was the enemy standing in the way of justice, healthy communities, and a less destructive stance toward the world. What did these two worlds have in common that enabled them to join together in putting food on the cultural map?

Part of the motivation of Waters and crew was clearly ethical and political. But as the quotes from Waters above make clear, pleasure was central to her worldview. All the save-the-world rhetoric notwithstanding, the food had to be exceptionally good, a commitment which was shared with the food establishment in New York. But that establishment also had more than a commitment to pleasure to bring to the table. They were committed to finding and consuming good food, and as almost all food writing throughout history has emphasized, food is about community. It is about bringing together and nourishing the people around you.

Despite their vastly different cultural assumptions, both the New York food establishment and the counter-cultural renegades shared this commitment to pleasure and community.  Perhaps they were not so far apart as they seemed at the time.

This is adapted from Chapter One of American Foodie.

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