“Hippie Food” – The Amazing Beginnings of The Natural Foods Movement

June 11th 2019

Review by Joe Wade, Provender Board member

Book Review: Hippie Food – How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by Jonathan Kauffman

Hippie Food Book CoverHow do we think of our times? The “we” in that question refers to the crowd that gathers each October to celebrate the continued life of our movement and the Provender Alliance.

Together we carved a niche that in our lifetime has become the Grand Canyon of natural foods and natural products in America. Millions of consumers, billions (upon billions!) of dollars. An Organic chicken in every pot, a compost pile near every garage.

Expansion like this is a thrill a minute to anyone on board for the ride. The deals are measured in billions of dollars and they just keep happening. Many of the brands that we nurtured along are part of massive corporate portfolios. To look back on it give you vertigo. It’s no exaggeration to say that the view today is unbelievable to any of us who were on the ride from the beginning. But things were not always so…

It’s said that the Age of Romanticism was unleashed by the archeological discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii in the late 1700s. That sudden opening of the window onto the past set a new background for the present. It was enough to reorient how current events were perceived. The Age of Enlightenment put up a “closed” sign and never re-opened. What began as a few loose stones quickly became a landslide that changed everything.

Our culture is made up of individual strands laid side by side, strands as delicate as thin lace, as brittle as dry pasta. As they build up and weave together we get….us. A recent book, Hippie Foods (Jonathan Kauffman, William Morrow 2018) is about many of those strands. It is a window to our past that can reorient how we see our current events. We know that we are part of a movement; this book tells the stories of the first stirrings, the first signs of life that became the movement that became the headlong rush. This book is a tonic for our memory.

Bread and rice were not always brown, there have not always been carob brownies; for that matter, there has not always been tofu. The stories of where these came from (literally; there is a story of why Carob trees were planted for the first time in the US, and you’ll never guess why) are served up here from an excellent recipe of painstaking research and entertaining prose. The story behind the Book of Tofu for instance, worthy of a novel but true.

Gypsy Boots and a group of ‘Nature Boys’, 1948. Courtesy: The Estate of Gypsy Boots.

So many of these stories are like this – Gypsy Boots and the Nature Boys…living in caves in Topanga Canyon. The nascent macrobiotic community in Boston deciding to replant the community as a whole to a place most likely to survive an atomic war (this was the early 60s and the macrobiotic community was led by a George Ohsawa of Japan) – and moving, as a caravan, to Chico CA in Oct 1961…and so creating the first market for organic brown rice for the nearby and very young Lundberg brothers.

And then there’s The Farm…so much came from The Farm…I don’t know where to start. Ask around the next Conference you go to and see if you can’t turn up someone who lived there at some point.

The book is divided like a map of the Pacific Northwest – into drainage basins that feed the small streams and rivers. You know where they all end up, it’s the local terrain at the headwaters that we’re exploring here: the back-to-the-land movement, the organic foods movement (the days of small-o organic are not so distant), a chapter on tofu (Tofu, the Political Dish), a chapter on vegetarians, one on food co-ops.

And the footnotes – don’t overlook them. Lots of depth and nuance readily available. My favorite: “Small world alert: one of the Jook Savages who moved to Los Angeles, Richard Moon, was the early Source Restaurant employee who turned Jim Baker on to Yogi Bhajan. Swear to god”. It is footnote 10 to chapter 6, swear to god. Altogether, Kauffman is very generous.

The only fault that I can name is brevity. That fat chapter about the Pacific Northwest and the Workers Brigade and Eugene and the CC movement and Starflower – you know that there is a book’s worth there. Maybe that’s going to be published separately, or maybe written by someone who is a Provender member today?

I imagine that there are times that you feel as though the companies and brands and ideas the make up the world of natural foods and natural products have all grown beyond our scope, that all the efforts are no longer human scale and only super-humans shape our culture. I feel that way at times. Read Hippie Foods, and be reminded that these inspired back-to-the–lander, longhair, revolutionaries began these very unlikely sounding experiments in your lifetime (or in the lifetime of your parents), and just look what happened.

If we don’t study history, they say, we are doomed to repeat it. This book gives us a different reason – some history was just so cool that you just might be inspired to relive it. When Amazon buys Whole Foods Market for 13 gazillion dollars, I say bring back the Nature Boys.

Joe Wade has lived and worked in the field of natural foods since his college days in Atlanta GA. For many of the early years that was as a retailer in small shops and co-ops. Since relocating to the Seattle area in the late ’70s (where he met his wife Annie) he’s also worked with large and small distributors, and with brokers – for a total of 40 years in the business and in the natural food community.