Talking Berkeley’s ‘Hippie Food’ culture with Jonathan Kauffman

Food writer Jonathan Kauffman, author of Hippie Food. Photo: Russell Yip

Raised in a politically liberal, socially conscious Mennonite family in Elkhart, Indiana, in the mid-’70s, food writer Jonathan Kauffman grew up eating things like stir-fried tofu and broccoli and lentil stew. Many Mennonites of his parent’s generation were advocates of natural-food cooking, making recipes from Doris Janzen Longacre’s More-with-Less Cookbook. As an adult, Kauffman found himself reflecting on these meals. He wondered why foods like brown rice, tofu, whole-wheat bread and granola were embraced by his community and counterculture communities. It’s a question he explores in depth in his new book Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat (William Morrow, 2018).

Kauffman first entered the food world through the kitchen. He spent time working in restaurants as a line cook in his youth, but his work as a writer — most notably at the San Francisco Chronicle — exploring the intersections of food and culture has earned him culinary accolades, including the coveted James Beard Award. In Hippie Food, he offers an engaging, entertaining and well-researched history of the natural food movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and how it changed the way we eat today.

We asked Kauffman about Berkeley’s place in hippie food culture and his own personal history in the East Bay.

We think of Northern California as ground zero for hippie food, but, as your book explains, there were lots of different centers around the country.
My goal with the book was to capture the nationwide scope of the natural-food movement of the 1970s — not just Northern California — so I set various chapters in Minneapolis, rural Vermont and Tennessee, Austin, and Ann Arbor. What did become clear was that Berkeley’s outsized influence on politics and counterculture thought did influence the food movement as well.


What were some things Berkeley was notable for in the early years of the food movement?
The Berkeley Food Conspiracy, for example, which started in 1969-70, became a network of buying clubs in Berkeley and beyond: Households and communes would pool their money to buy great quantities of fresh vegetables from the Oakland produce wholesalers, bulk dry goods like peanut butter and wheatberries and big blocks of cheese. The conspiracies would then meet to divvy up their spoils, which became social and political gatherings in their own right. Those early conspiracies — they didn’t want to call themselves “co-ops” in order to set themselves apart from the Berkeley Food Co-op, which was more like a grocery store at the time, plus “conspiracy” sounded so chic — multiplied all around the Bay Area, and the idea made its way to counterculture circles across the country. A number of the conspiracies that focused on whole grains and natural-food staples like tofu and yogurt also evolved into consumer food co-ops.

Who were some of the local people involved?
A young Berkeley resident named Frances Moore Lappé, whose husband was pursuing a postdoc at UC Berkeley, had a great influence on the food movement. Concerned with the prospect of widespread global famine, which seemed imminent at the time, she spent weeks in the university’s agricultural economics library, studying crop reports and nutritional charts. Lappé came to the conclusion that American farmers grew so much grain and soy to feed animals for meat that if we fed them to humans instead, we could alleviate famine. The 1971 book she published on her research, Diet for a Small Planet, inspired hundreds of thousands of Americans to switch to a vegetarian diet, convinced that they could get enough protein without consuming beef or chicken. More than that, Diet for a Small Planet helped the food movement find its ethical thrust, telling baby boomers that their individual food buying habits could have much larger political effects.

Any other historical Berkeley institutions of note?
Berkeley in the 1970s was home to a whole-wheat bakery named Uprisings; a collectively run and globally inspired restaurant named The Swallow (Ruth Reichl was a cook-owner); food co-ops such as Ma Revolution and the long-running Berkeley Food Co-op, and, of course, the Cheese Board. If you spend a few hours poring over 1967 and 1968 issues of the San Francisco Express Times, an underground newspaper, you’ll come across “Alice’s Restaurant,” a series of stunningly illustrated recipes for dishes like yogurt, whole-wheat bread and Moroccan carrots. The illustrator was famed printmaker David Lance Goines. And when the actual Alice did open an actual restaurant in 1971, she became that Alice.

You have an East Bay history yourself. Did you live here or across the Bay?
I wrote food articles for the East Bay Express as a freelancer starting in 1999 and was the staff restaurant critic from 2001 to 2006. Thanks to good rent control, I continued to live in San Francisco until I moved to Seattle to write for the Seattle Weekly in 2006. I returned to San Francisco in 2010 to join the staff of the SF Weekly. [In 2015, Kauffman became a food writer at the San Francisco Chronicle.]

Do you make it back to Berkeley and the East Bay often?
I still make pilgrimages to Berkeley to eat at Vik’s Chaat, which is just as great as it was when it was a third its size, as well as to Ippuku and Café Colucci. I’m also a big fan of Great China, Iyasare and Bette’s Oceanview Diner. I also can’t pass by Gioia without stopping in for a slice.