After Tastes

Letters to the Editor:

“Berkeley’s food revolution began on the roof of a police car in Sproul Plaza on October 1, 1964” is a catchy introduction to Derrick Schneider’s article “Nowhere Else But Here” in your last issue. Unfortunately, he fails to capture the complex local histories of either politics or food.

Schneider’s thesis appears to be- 1) Berkeley became a magnet for radical “troublemakers” in the 60s; 2) the successes of the student movements (Free Speech Movement, etc.) which they led left them with “a humming energy”; 3) which they translated into a food revolution following the philosophical guidance of Mario Savio.

This is a clever construction, but I think the roots of this revolution go much further back than 1964. The Bay Area has enjoyed a century and a half of a vibrant culinary culture. Seafood restaurants like Sam’s and Tadich Grill in the City (and Berkeley’s Spenger’s before it faded), and dozens of Chinese, Italian, and French restaurants set high standards and educated our palates. Long before Acme and Semifreddi, we had the wonderful sourdough breads of San Francisco. Pioneers of the wine industry were producing excellent wines since the 1930s. Books like Doris Muscatine’s “A Cook’s Tour of San Francisco”, published in 1963, and restaurant and food guides produced by various authors over the years attested to the widespread interest in the subject. The recent contributions of our local friends has been spectacular, but they were firmly based in a long Bay Area tradition.

Schneider says the “new American cuisine” was built on Savio’s idea “you can only solve problems by going around the establishment, not by working within it.” The food revolutionaries have had many successes, but haven’t they all done so quite comfortably within the establishment? The bakers, the restaurateurs, the wine merchants, the food writers, the coffee sellers, the cheese makers and the organic farmers all are hard at work in profit-making enterprises. If that is not part of the establishment, what is it?

Schneider is surely correct in noting the left-liberal environment of Berkeley as a factor in the food revolution. This has long been an area hospitable to new ideas, political, social and intellectual. Before World War II the university was a rather staid and provincial institution, but the post-war influx of new faculty and a less docile student body changed everything. Add to that the trauma of the Loyalty Oath controversy of 1949-1950, and the gradual development of student involvement in civil rights, free speech and other issues and the stage was set for the confrontations of 1964 and thereafter. In short, it was not simply that “troublemakers came in droves” in the 60s.

So, what is the link, if any, between the FSM, the radicals in 1960s Berkeley, Mario Savio’s philosophy and the Berkeley Food Revolution? It seems to me that the student movements of the 60s were consistent with the general trend in our local political culture, temporarily dramatic but without much lasting effect. Given the nation-wide increase in interest in food that developed in the 50s, the long history of good food in this area, and the openness to experiment that has typified Northern California, this was an ideal place for culinary change to flourish. By great good luck, Berkeley attracted a cadre of talented and innovative young people who have made it happen “nowhere else but here.”

— Elmer R. Grossman, M.D.

Derrick Schneider responds:

Dr. Grossman makes excellent points about the much longer history that trails behind the Berkeley food revolution. No amount of text could probably do the movement full justice, certainly not a piece that needed to paint in broad strokes.

Still, while Berkeley’s campus had an active liberal community for many decades, most of the players in the Free Speech Movement claim to have come to Cal because of contemporary events, in particular the 1960 movie Operation Abolition. The movie presented a somewhat tame protest—admittedly one where officials shooed students away with a fire hose’s stream—as a Communist-led riot, and I’ve heard many of the FSM leaders say that the movie inspired them to come to Berkeley. “It was where the action was,” was a common refrain among the left-wing activists who would become famous in the press’s cameras.

The students who came after those events often told me that the town seemed adventurous and exciting precisely because of the FSM’s presence in the news. A few of my interview subjects came to the school as a somewhat rebellious move against their parents, and quickly found their way into the counterculture that thrived in that era: Alice Waters worked on an underground newspaper before she left for France. I do believe that the collective rebellious streak and constant political turmoil caused an unusual atmosphere, and my phrase “a thrumming energy” is an amalgam of similar phrases from three of my interview subjects. Though it’s also true that as Cal students, none had the longer perspective to compare the town’s attitudes then to its attitudes beforehand.

Dr. Grossman’s point about the extant food scene is well taken, and I certainly don’t want to trivialize the good food that existed before Alice Waters stepped on the scene. Indeed, I hope to explore those histories in future Edible East Bay articles. But I’m sure he’d agree that those restaurants were beloved by many but remembered by few outside the region. Unlike Chez Panisse, which couldn’t have survived anywhere else but has affected the American culinary landscape in a profound way—not a “temporarily dramatic” gesture but a true shift.
I could not agree more about the irony of anti-establishment types becoming very well established themselves. Many of that generation have settled for something less than they might have as youths, and the current student body lacks enough of a radical edge to keep that spirit alive. We are probably all the worse for it, but at least we have good food to console us.

— Derrick Schneider

Words from our copyeditor inspired by the same article:

One day I ate a Pop-Tart outside Chez Panisse. Wracked with guilt, I hid the wrapped toaster pastry in my coat sleeve and nibbled as inconspicuously as I could, all the while praying that Alice Waters wouldn’t look out her window to see me blaspheme in the Gourmet Ghetto.

Thirty years earlier, on that very street, the hippie soldiers of Berkeley’s food revolution changed the way a nation thought about food. Their political ideals inspired allegiance to pure, seasonal flavors and transformed each meal into a peaceful protest. Those of us too young to remember that taste revolution take its delicious consequences for granted. But the food fighters left us the legacy of their activist mentality: We are still keenly aware that what we choose to eat has consequences beyond our stomachs.

Since before organic was a choice, before Gandhi promoted vegetarianism and Marie Antoinette promoted cake, back to when Eve sank her pearly whites into that fateful apple, food has been one of our most powerful symbolic tools. Because everyone needs to eat, the way we eat is one of the few things that distinguishes us from one another. Food choices can set us apart from or express our affiliation with a culture, a region, a religion, a political agenda. In Berkeley in the 1970s, those choices drove a revolution.

Today in the East Bay, we face more food choices than ever before. A trip to the market demands an extensive food vocabulary, and also, a point of view. When I choose an organic peach over a conventionally-grown one, I may be expressing my concern for the earth or the health of farm workers. I may also be trying to give the impression of concern, or healthiness, or simply making a decision that I assume is the right one, without actually knowing what organic means. When I choose an organic peach over a locally-grown one, I face an entirely different set of ethical, environmental, political, culinary issues. That peach is never simply a peach because, as the revolutionaries understood, food carries meaning beyond its chemical makeup.

I mused upon this idea as I walked home that day, dusting crumbs from my lips as a criminal might scrub away incriminating fingerprints. The problem, I thought, is that while buying or eating particular foods might demonstrate our support for certain causes, we don’t always eat to support a cause. Sometimes we eat because of cravings or out of nostalgia for a taste memory. Most of the time, we eat what we can afford. So even though I chose that Pop-Tart because it was cheap, and I was hungry, and ultimately because I loved its unassuming, gooey sugariness, I felt as though the shiny silver wrapper and immaculately rectangular morsel in my hand were broadcasting to the world some anti-fresh, local, seasonal opinion that was not my own.

I believe in eating locally, in supporting family farms and production that sustains and replenishes the earth. Most of all, I believe in the flavor of the freshest, ripest foods. But I also like Pop-Tarts and brand name chunky peanut butter. Sometimes I buy mangoes off-season and enjoy every juicy, sinful bite. I can’t always afford to buy organic or eat in restaurants that share my values. The hardest part of being a post-revolutionary foodie may be figuring out how to reconcile my principles with my food whims at a time when we have more food choices and more freedom to choose what to eat than ever before.

Walking along the streets of Berkeley, Pop-Tart in belly, I felt dissatisfied and guilty—and it had nothing to do with the empty calories. I was feeling what the revolutionaries had thirty years ago: that food as a powerful symbol can affect emotions and therefore affect change. The difference this time around was that I didn’t want to produce change. I didn’t want to make a statement. I only wanted to taste. But maybe it’s too late. Maybe taste is my statement. And with this breakfast manifesto, the change has already begun.

— Sarah Inez Levy

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