From the creation of Tofurky to the birth of the organic brown-rice industry, Jonathan Kauffman’s new book looks into an American food revolution.
Kauffman was the restaurant critic for Seattle Weekly at the time, a much-admired journalist with a professional cooking background and an eye for untold stories like the Seattle-based history of teriyaki. At the Sunlight, Seattle’s oldest surviving vegetarian restaurant, Kauffman began wondering why he didn’t approach such “hippie food” with the same respect and curiosity he applied to pho shops and French bistros. How, he wondered, did it become identified as the cuisine of the 1960s counterculture? And how did granola and tofu stir fries and brown rice spread to kitchens across America, including his own childhood table?
“I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and we belonged to a food co-op in 1975,” he says. “If it was happening in Elkhart, Indiana, it was happening everywhere.”
Jonathan Kauffman will speak at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at Town Hall Seattle at Westside School, 10404 34th Ave. S.W. Tickets: $5. More information at townhallseattle.org.
The years of research and writing that followed culminated this month in Kauffman’s new book, “Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat” (William Morrow, $26.99).
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The book is a reminder of how bizarre even organic vegetables seemed to most Americans just a few decades ago. It tells how controversial macrobiotic diets introduced young cooks to Asian ingredients and cooking techniques, while giving “the first shape to an emerging culture built on the foundations of eating seasonally, organically and often locally.”
Seattle had plenty going on during that era, including PCC Natural Markets and the formation of Tilth, but the cultural changes Kauffman mapped were as much a product of rural towns as big cities. It turns out the “hippie food” story is a cross-country tapestry of fascinating individuals and big visions.
“To me, it says a lot about what cuisine is in America,” Kauffman said in a recent phone interview from California, where he now writes for The San Francisco Chronicle. “We take all of these kooky ideas and odd philosophies and our potent idealism, and that shapes our diet more than necessarily the food that’s around us.”
Along the way, it informs us how many lively stories there are behind our most mundane meals: How did Japanese-inspired rice cakes come to America? (Answer: through a California-based macrobiotic community where a machine popped out a single dry, puffed cake at a time.) How did home cooks of the era learn to bake passable whole-wheat bread? (From “The Tassajara Bread Book,” written by a Zen monk.) Who made mass-produced tofu possible in the United States? (Lots of credit to Laurie Praskin, who cooked up big batches in a vegan Tennessee commune known as The Farm.)
Plenty of the story was eye-catching, from the creation of Tofurky to the birth of the organic brown-rice industry. But the overall surprise, Kauffman says, was just how young all the pivotal figures were.
“Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, we had this slightly antagonistic, slightly admiring look at the counterculture of the 1960s. But we were mostly fed up with their own self-mythologizing.
“To go back and look at how young they were, especially from the perspective of my 40s — and how much fear and struggle they were enveloped in that was motivating them to make those massive changes — that wasn’t all just tie-dye and LSD. That gave me a lot of respect for what this generation wound up accomplishing.”
The Sunlight Cafe is moving to a new location around the corner this year. It’s one of the few restaurants of its type still around. But the ingredients the restaurants showcased are stocked at bargain markets and in Starbucks cases, available in most corners of America at minimal effort.
“It wasn’t a cuisine that depended on restaurants to exist … ” Kauffman says.
“It was created in communal households and campsites and rural homesteading households by people who often had no idea how to cook when they started. So they created this whole cuisine out of their — I don’t know, their good intentions.”