How We Got From Twinkies to Tofu

How We Got From Twinkies to Tofu


“Health food” as a path to dietary salvation has long flourished in America, going back to John Harvey Kellogg’s legendary sanitarium in Battle Creek, where Americans paid to have yogurt administered to both ends of their alimentary canal. A somewhat more hedonic version of health food appeared in 1950s Los Angeles. “Health seekers” could find fresh unprocessed foods “still charged with their life force” at restaurants like the Aware Inn, the Health Hut and, a bit later, the Source. (It was on the patio of the Source on Sunset Boulevard where Woody Allen broke up with Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall” after ordering a plate of mashed yeast.) These were restaurants with gurus, and they introduced Americans to such culinary novelties as juicing, alfalfa sprouts and the late, unlamented chocolate substitute called carob.

Around the same time a rather more austere regime of dietary salvation entered the countercuisine via the small but highly influential fad of macrobiotics, or, as it was often called (for no apparent reason), “Zen macrobiotics.” Imported from Japan in the early ’60s, this rigorous, science-free culinary practice demanded of adherents that they scrupulously balance the yin and yang in their diet; for many followers this came down to eating little more than (yang-y) brown rice and tamari, a diet responsible for several cases of scurvy and a handful of deaths. Yet the macrobiotic fringe seeped into the mainstream, introducing Americans to Asian flavors (soy sauce) and methods (stir frying) as well as to eating seasonally and organically, while helping to stigmatize processed foods like refined grains and sugar.

If Kauffman’s story has a hero, it is Frances Moore Lappé, the writer who most galvanized the counterculture just as it was beginning to think of eating as a political act. In 1969, Lappé, 25, burrowed into the stacks of Berkeley’s agricultural economics library hoping to learn if Malthusian predictions of mass starvation (recently popularized by Paul Ehrlich in “The Population Bomb”) were true. What she discovered, and told the world about in her 1971 best-selling book, “Diet for a Small Planet,” was that the problem “wasn’t how much food the earth could produce, it was what we did with it” — which was to feed much of it to animals, nature’s least efficient machine for converting sunlight into edible protein. A far better machine? The humble soybean, which she convinced a generation “could save the world.” Enter William Shurtleff, who, inspired by Lappé, went to Japan and returned as the Johnny Appleseed of tofu.

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Lappé had composed a powerful proof of exactly how the personal is political. Summarizing the message she brought to millions of Americans, Kauffman writes, “Shopping and cooking … were political acts, hopeful acts, whose cumulative impact would be felt around the world.” The arresting idea that what someone in Ann Arbor chose to eat had implications for hunger in Bombay made vegetarianism a moral imperative for many in the counterculture.

“Then came the real struggle,” Kauffman writes, of making vegetarian food “delicious.” But in time hippie chefs rose to the challenge, usually by raiding other food cultures for flavor, as Mollie Katzen did so effectively in her “Moosewood Cookbook” (three million copies sold since publication). In time, the counterculture rescued vegetables from centuries of mistreatment by Anglo-American cooks.

The third current shaping hippie food flowed directly from counterculture politics, with its critique of capitalism and romantic notions about preindustrial life. Especially after 1970, when untold numbers of hippies fled a souring scene in the city for a fresh start in the country, figuring out how to feed themselves without depending on the Man became paramount. (America’s rural population increased by more than 10 percent during the 1970s.) Rejecting a chemical agriculture that was fatally linked to the Vietnam War by Monsanto and Dow, hippie farmers with no training had to puzzle out how to grow food without pesticides or fertilizers. Many failed, but a handful went on to develop the sustainable practices now enshrined in the federal definition of “organic food,” which has become a $50 billion industry.

But for the hippies it wasn’t enough to grow the food differently; it had to be sold and distributed differently, too, which meant networks of buying clubs and co-ops and farmer’s markets. Except for the farmer’s markets, which continue to thrive, these alternatives to capitalism have not fared nearly as well as the types of food they sold. Grocers like Whole Foods eventually co-opted the co-ops, reducing what had been a radical idea to a cool retail vibe.

Capitalism’s genius for absorbing and integrating every challenge to it is on vivid display in this thoroughly absorbing history. Behind familiar brands like Stonyfield (now a subsidiary of Danone) or Cascadian Farm (now part of General Mills) stand hippie ideals as well as pioneering organic farmers. As Gene Kahn, the hippie-farmer founder of Cascadian Farm, told me, somewhat ruefully, after he sold his company to General Mills, “Everything eventually morphs into the way the world is.” True enough, and yet the world is also changed in the process. Hippie foods may have been absorbed into the mainstream, and to an extent hippie farming too, but the big hippie idea about food — that our eating has moral, ethical and political implications — has lost none of its power, and continues to feed a movement.



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