Jonathan Kauffman Has Made Peace With Brown Rice—The Former Critic on His New Book, 'Hippie Food'

Jonathan Kauffman Has Made Peace With Brown Rice—The Former Critic on His New Book, 'Hippie Food'

"Look who's laughing now"—literally all hippies, ever.

March 15, 2018
● 5 min read
Jonathan Kauffman Has Made Peace With Brown Rice—The Former Critic on His New Book, 'Hippie Food'

Jonathan Kauffman Has Made Peace With Brown Rice—The Former Critic on His New Book, 'Hippie Food'

"Look who's laughing now"—literally all hippies, ever.

March 15, 2018
● 5 min read

By Roxanne Webber | Illustration jeremkin via iStock; collage ChefsFeed

The first time I heard the name 'Jonathan Kauffman' was after he bested me at an awards ceremony in 2009.

He soon arrived in San Francisco as a food critic, and we first met while he was still officially in hyper stealth-mode. This was back when Eater always was trying to "unmask" the critics and it was all very hush-hush—to his credit, he's one of the only critics I'm aware of that maintained pretty solid anonymity. He's the type of friendly that grows especially well somewhere like his home state of Indiana; soft-spoken, quick to laugh, and startlingly attentive in a sea of hardened city cynics.  

These days, the mask is off; he covers food and culture for the San Francisco Chronicle and has just published his first book, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat, a topic near to both our hearts. While we grew up on opposite sides of the country, we shared a hippie childhood and the foods that came along with it: in my case, hella carrot juice from a beastly yellow Champion juicer that weighed about 100lbs, sprouted wheat bread (with a once-yearly break from the no-refined-grains rule, when my brother and I could pick out "sugar cereal" for our birthdays), and the joys of coin-operated showers at the local laundromat when the hand-dug well on our property ran dry in the summer. In his, a war waged between parent and child, on a battlefield called Whole Wheat. (He's since seen the light, and laid down his arms, as have I.)

In a world where Bon Appétit covers adaptogens and Moon Dust is a thing you can eat, Kauffman's take is a thoughtful celebration of the crunchy hippie soul of what we now call wellness—highly recommended if you stopped midway through a unicorn latte to wonder how the hell you wound up drinking something called blue majik spirulina. Who are you? News flash: you're a hippie. Welcome.

So what is Hippie Food about?

I was really looking at the whole foods, 1970s diet as a cuisine in itself and trying to figure out where a lot of those ingredients and ideas about food came from. Why people started eating tofu and brown rice and sprouts and granola. And how those foods spread across the country so quickly that my parents, who live in a small town in Indiana, were cooking this food in the mid-1970s for me as a kid.

Part of it was just trying to figure out: How did I end up eating this? And why?

So take us back, before we were eating fancy layered chia parfaits, what was the origin of IG-ready #selfcare food?

There were three points of origin that I found. One: In 1840, with Sylvester Graham and the very first vegetarian movement that the Seventh Day Adventists picked up. And this idea that white bread and sugar and meat and spices and also like masturbation were going to overstimulate ourselves.

Two: Macrobiotics, which kind of arrived in the United States in the 1960s with George Osawa. His diet was really a variation on a Japanese peasant diet that these hippie kids adopted. He's the one that coined the terms tamari and seitan.

Three: The health food movement in Southern California starting around the 1910s all the way up to the 1960s. That movement introduced so many of the ingredients that we think of as health food, and they also got tied in with vitamins and the vitamin movement. So, you had these little vitamin pills and supplement shops all over where the counterculture kids went in to pick up stuff before they set up their own co-ops. So that was where sprouts and carob and wheat germ and brewer's yeast and fertile eggs all came from. It all comes out of that movement. Molasses, apple cider vinegar, Bragg's liquid amino acids. I mean, just everything, everything.

Why L.A.?

Back in the 1890s, when the railroads first arrived in L.A., the climate was ideal for hospitals, so they were luring tuberculosis sufferers out to Southern California. And then, about 20 years later they decided they really didn't want to be known as the place for sick folks, so they basically switched the marketing from "great for TB" to general wellness.

Did Hollywood's obsession with appearance play into it as the film industry ramped up as well?

Definitely. There was this new influence and emphasis on beauty. And so, you had this sort of combination of interests that just drew every alternative healer to L.A. On top of that, you had the year-round supply of fresh produce and there you go: you're there.

Can you give an overview of some of the ingredients and things people think are really contemporary now but had their roots in hippie food?

Nutritional Yeast: They used to extract B vitamins from yeast and create compressed yeast cakes that you would eat or put into things as an early type of B Vitamin supplement. There was a commune in Tennessee called The Farm, who discovered that a tastier source of nutritional yeast was raised on molasses instead of hops and turned that into this sort of umami-rich golden thing you sprinkle on popcorn now.

Sprouts: In the 1950s, sprouting came about as a combination of two things. First, people started to encounter mung bean sprouts and soybean sprouts from Asian American communities in Southern California. But there was also a whole fixation on vitality, and viewing sprouts as a vital food because you're eating it raw and living. There were raw food diets coming out of Southern California as early as the 1920s, and that's how we ended up with alfalfa sprouts.

Gypsy Boots and The Nature Boys, right.

How has doing the book changed the way you eat at modern places now? Like going into restaurants that have a contemporary, delicious take on health food but don't bill themselves as "health food" restaurants?

It's funny, I tried reaching out to a couple of people and telling them I was writing a book called Hippie Food that I thought their restaurants fit into the narrative of, and nobody would get back to me. There definitely seemed to be a desire to distance themselves from that way of marketing their food. The only person who did is Cortney Burns (Loom, Duna). She totally owns it, and her food is taking all of this stuff and it's making it so much tastier and brighter and more colorful.

How did writing the book change your feelings about your diet, and your background?

I ended up having a lot more empathy for the Baby Boom generation. It was so interesting to talk to these people who had devoted huge chunks of their lives to baking bread for less than minimum wage because they believed whole wheat bread should be the bread people should eat. That generation gets a reputation for being the "me" generation, which they were, but there were a lot of people who were also devoting huge chunks of their lives to making change.

Did you find any interesting chefs or culinary figures in your research that had been forgotten, but have an interesting legacy?

I became a little obsessed with Gypsy Boots and the Nature Boys. They were this group of guys who lived in California in the canyons and in the hills around L.A. and would hitchhike up and down the state living off the land. They were all really fit, had long hair, and were naked most of the time. They would show up on Muscle Beach and give out fruit to the bodybuilders. He also may have invented the modern energy bar, because he had the Boots Bar which was made of all these nuts and seeds.

Which hippie foods have yet to pop out and become the next "it" ingredient?

Mushroom tea. Soon we'll all be paying 12 dollars for it.


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