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Walk north along Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley and pretty soon you’ll see signs advertising the Gourmet Ghetto. These few blocks between Hearst Avenue and Rose Street are the cradle of California cuisine. This is where Alice Waters kicked off the farm-to-table movement when she opened Chez Panisse in 1971. Five years earlier, Alfred Peet introduced Americans to specialty coffee at his eponymous café founded in the same neighborhood. At around the same time that those two businesses were getting going, the nearby Cheese Board Collective was reformulating what a different type of restaurant business model could look like.
This single neighborhood continues to shape both what Americans eat and how they think about what they’re eating. Since its beginnings, the Gourmet Ghetto has emphasized fresh, local and seasonal foods, but also socially responsible ones, and it introduced a new idea to the American palette: that food could not only taste good, but do good.
But who came up with the name? And why did it stick?
One possible origin story holds that legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined the term in the 1970s to describe the coterie of like-minded, socially conscious eateries of the Berkeley neighborhood previously known as “North Shattuck.” Real estate listings occasionally even perpetuate this particular story.
But if Caen invented the term “Gourmet Ghetto,” he failed to write it down. A more likely candidate than Caen is Kahn. Alice Kahn, that is, the Berkeley humorist and erstwhile columnist for the East Bay Express, and later for the Chronicle.
In her writing, Kahn describes a Berkeley all too familiar to both current residents and those of 50 years ago.
“Berkeley, like Tina Turner, never does anything nice and easy,” Kahn is quoted as saying in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “If you keep this in mind, you won’t be surprised when what would seem to be the simplest of civic acts — from tree trimming to garbage disposal — become issues of heated debate, protest, emotion and political intrigue.”
Kahn has a long history with Berkeley generally and the Gourmet Ghetto specifically, and this particular origin story carries the most weight among local players in the know. In The Cheese Board: Collective Works: Bread, Pastry, Cheese, Pizza the restaurant honors Kahn as having invented the term.
At least one insider disagrees with this story, however. L John Harris is a former Cheese Boarder, author of the book Foodoodles, and a historian of Berkeley and the Gourmet Ghetto. By Harris’s account, Kahn certainly used the term and likely popularized it, but did not invent it herself. To that, he credits Darryl Henriques.
Henriques was a joker, a member of East Bay Comedy Sharks and satirist theater group San Francisco Mime Troupe. He performed stand-up at Freight and Salvage and was a member of the Cheese Board collective in the early ’70s. According to Harris, the term “Gourmet Ghetto” was part of a routine Henriques had for chiding the social mores of the neighborhood.
“I remember him talking, holding forth, going on about the ‘decline’ of the neighborhood as it became increasingly focused on fancy food post-Chez Panisse,” said Harris.
The preferred current term of disparagement for people with a pronounced interest in food was not yet in use in the ’70s.
“This was pre-foodie, so we were gourmets,” said Harris.
Since Kahn — like Caen — made a career of recording the quirks of those around her, and was often in the Cheese Board at the time that Henriques was a member, Harris believes that Kahn heard the routine and incorporated the term into her writing.
But what strikes Harris as strangest part of the story has been the end result — that a term of gentle mockery for a collection of conscious eateries has become the banner the district rallies around. There are websites, brochures, books and a line of apparel all advertising the Gourmet Ghetto.
“What started out as a joke ended up as the official moniker,” said Harris.
There goes the neighborhood.