Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed The Way We Eat
By Jonathan Kauffman
William Morrow and Company
When my family take our normal Sunday drive to and from town, my kids’ favorite post-church activity is listening to food shows on the radio. One Sunday, the radio announced an interview for a new book on the history of health food in the U.S. I was intrigued because, while there is plenty of material on the history of U.S. farming and nutrition over the past fifty years, I hadn’t seen too many books about this aspect of history.
A few days later, I found myself sitting down to enjoy Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food, a briskly paced, beautifully written and bounteously researched book on the history of the U.S. health food movement since the middle of the twentieth century. It starts with a good introductions, covering the rapid changes in Americans’ dietary habits that took place in the sixties and seventies, touching on farming, food and finances in a few pages. Kauffman brings these data to life with historical examples from primary sources. For example, the sudden drop in America’s spending on food—from around 25 percent of income to about 15 percent—is apparent in the cookbooks and convenience stores of the time.
Against this backdrop of a nation quickly moving to “the displacing foods of modern commerce” (as Dr. Weston A. Price called them), the countercultural forces of the sixties and seventies, along with increasing wealth, created a window of resistance. From food co-ops to the first organic farms, all sorts of people and groups sought an alternative to the homogenization of food and culture that was taking place. Kauffman makes an important comment at the book’s beginning, stating, “I have no interest in telling you why you should be eating it. Rather I want to know why so many other people did.” His work isn’t an endorsement or argument in favor of any particular dietary philosophy but instead an exploration of the brief but important part of our nation’s history that helps us understand the health food movement today.
Kauffman structures his exploration in three parts. The first three chapters cover pre-1968 figures and forces that set the stage for the revolutionary period of 1968-1974. This latter period, while culturally important and consequential, was brief and gave way to the rise of the post-1974 baby boomer lifestyle revolution. These three historical periods provide the overall structure to Kauffman’s story of our nation’s eventual embrace of some aspects of “hippie food.”
The first chapter alone is worth the price of admission. Kauffman’s colorful but concise writing quickly moves the reader across a cadre of individuals whose health teachings, almost seventy years later, still influence the American diet. He doesn’t waste words or time and in thirty-some pages provides an excellent overview of the antecedents of what would become the alternative health movement. Almost every page of this and subsequent chapters is full of useful information, helping fill in many gaps in my understanding of how we ended up with the food system we have today. From the American fitness pioneer Gypsy Boots (born Robert Bootzin) to “death by mucus,” the fifties, sixties and early seventies marked a raucous time culturally, economically and politically in the U.S.—and especially in southern California, where health food’s roots run deep. That period also marked a time of increasing degenerative disease and desperation as people sought ways to protect their health.
Some of the diets and teachings from this era would cause modern people to cringe. For example, much of the early health food movement was anti-meat and anti-fat, leaning toward raw foodism and veganism—but at least these folks were thinking about and trying to figure out what kind of food resulted in health and what kind of food actually deserved to be called “food.” Kauffman quotes Paul Bragg, who stated, “I have helped thousands of hopeless sufferers back to new life and health by teaching them the cause of all disease—a poisoned bloodstream resulting from the popular diet of unnatural, demineralized and devitalized foodless foods.” Bragg no doubt was engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but we have to nod and agree that much of America’s declining health can be traced to the “foodless food” that overtook the nation.
In southern California, the growth of Hollywood helped health and beauty take center stage, spreading (via television and other media) to the entire U.S. and beyond. What Bragg, Boots and others began teaching and selling in So-Cal eventually found its way into almost every kitchen. This burgeoning health food movement was not without its detractors, however. Many of the same players who today continue to attack healthy food and farming got an early start coming out against what they called the “food faddists,” telling people that so-called health foods “won’t do you any special good.” Fortunately, the critics did little to slow the movement’s success. Even with the health food movement’s many imperfections and problems, it was hard for early converts to take mainstream health authorities seriously when they saw first-hand how little the critics had to offer.
Kauffman includes too much material to describe in a short review. Hippie Food is as dense as the early loaves of unrisen, unyeasted whole wheat and whole grain breads, yet it never loses its palatability or appeal. Nonetheless, I found several elements of Kauffman’s fine work especially important. First, food movements are cultural movements. Any time the culture is shifting or changing also presents an opportunity to change how people think about food. Second, a powerful force for helping people change their food habits involves providing a community—a tribe—for them to join. You can’t separate food from community. Third, food movements have always been led by enigmatic, engaging and enlightening people. I am sure that the Aajonus Vonderplanitzs, Sally Fallon Morells and Joel Salatins of today will someday find their way into the books of tomorrow. Hippie Food also makes it clear that some of the movement’s leaders were egregiously flawed but shows that without these mavericks and rogues, healthy food could well have become almost fully extinct and unavailable.
In short, the book reminds us that history is messy. Kauffman doesn’t gloss over the fact that mistakes can be costly and that some people suffered (or even died) chasing alternative diets and ideas. The zeal with which some people embrace alternative diets, mediated through gurus instead of traditional wisdom, can sometimes cause great harm. At times, the health food movement also has imported and embraced other cultures’ health foods without paying attention to how those cultures actually raise, prepare and consume them.
Last but not least, Hippie Food makes it clear that there is no health food without healthy farming. Sadly, some sectors of the health food movement have started to drift from a commitment to healthy farming, which especially means local farming. Early health foodists worked tirelessly to support and protect local and truly organic farms. Without their labor, we likely would have little organic agriculture today.
Overall, while recognizing that there is more to glean from the story of health food in America, Hippie Food reminds us to value the good while we continue to pursue the better. While we are at it, it helps to have a sense of humor and an appreciation of history. Two thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2018.