Those who claim they can see back through the smoke into memories of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto in the 1970s recall that there was quite a bit more going on than the currentlytold popular history tends to cover, like for instance, that there were other players besides Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, and Alfred Peet.
Also, they recall that as the 1970s food revolution was dawning, it was not just about heirloom tomatoes; it was also about garlic. And so it is fitting that the notorious Mr. Garlic, author of the Book of Garlic (1974), L. John Harris, has come up with a little book of cartoons and commentary to set the record straight.
In Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History—Collected Cartoons & Commentaries (El Leon Literary Arts), just published this fall, Harris is at his finest, as an exuberant historical commentator wielding a devilish pencil.
Harris’s perspective on the Gourmet Ghetto’s formative years comes directly from the trenches, where in the 1970s he did stints waiting tables at Chez Panisse, cooking at the Swallow cafe, mongering cheese at the Cheese Board (before it became a collective), and hawking sausage at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, all the while steadfastly dedicating himself to the promulgation of mirth.
His appreciation for food literature led him in the 1980s to found Aris Books, through which he encouraged the local culinary talent in the authoring of single-subject “armchair cookbooks.” Among the many notable titles in the Aris series were Isaac Cronin’s International Squid Cookbook, Jay Harlow’s The Grilling Book, Maggie Klein’s Feast of the Olive, Michele Jordan’s Good Cook’s Book of Mustard, and Bruce Cost’s Ginger East to West.
In August, we caught up with Harris at Poulet, one of his favorite Ghetto haunts, and harassed him (well why not) with a few questions.
Edible East Bay: Mr. Harris, do you consider yourself one of Berkeley’s original foodies?
L. John Harris: Is this a trick question?
EEB: It’s what’s being served at the moment.
LJH: Well, I have trouble identifying with the word “foodie.” I find it, um, hard to swallow.
EEB: I’ll bring you some water. But can you tell me why, in particular, you’re gagging?
LJH: For me “Berkeley foodie” is an oxymoron. A foodie is essentially a consumer. But when food became an “art form” in Berkeley in the 1970s there was really not much to consume—you know, quality food products and “cuisine.” That’s what our crowd of foodists did in the ‘70s and ‘80s, created things worth consuming—good restaurants, fancy food products, fine wines, literate cookbooks, etc. Back in Berkeley’s pre-foodie days, gourmets were just gourmets and cooks were just cooks. We didn’t faint at the sight of toques, double-breasted jackets and black and white checked pants. Chefs were like UPS workers or stewardesses—uniformed service sector workers, not TV stars. Those of us who put on the chef ’s whites and became celebrities, well that was totally unintentional.
EEB: Do you think that people today have an accurate picture of East Bay food history from that era?
LJH: Not really. The food scene then was not as politicized as it is today. Food was for many of us like paint or clay or bronze—we could make it into something that was both pleasurable and artistic. We were bohemians and aesthetes, not activists. But I’m not sure that perspective—food as a kind of art for art’s sake medium—is generally appreciated today. People want to put all kinds of political meanings onto the food revolution—that we were using food to challenge post-WWII America and its mass-produced and over-processed foods. That’s true, up to a point, but for a lot of us, the culinary ‘70s and ‘80s were our Banquet Years, to borrow the title of Roger Shattuck’s wonderful book on the 19th century Parisian avant garde, a bohemian feast of the senses.
EEB: I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a culinary dinosaur. What do you mean?
LJH: I feel that I’m part of the last generation of American gourmets. We are being asked today to adapt to a new, and perhaps necessary, gastronomic paradigm as promoted by folks like Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Carlo Petrini, and even Michele Obama—I call them Pollanistas. The new paradigm politicizes food and requires that we learn to cook and eat more with the left side of our brains, which is the logical and analytical side, with strict rules and formulas. Old-school gourmets, the dinosaurs, tend to cook and eat with the right side of the brain, which is intuitive, spontaneous and deeply connected to sensory/ organoleptic inputs. We are sort of out of our element now.
EEB: Can you give me an example of how this left/right brain gastronomy plays out in the real world?
LJH: Well, one gets the impression while eating at restaurants like Gather or Cafe Gratitude that one is going to church, not a restaurant: the dogma is all spelled out, like scripture, on the walls and the menu—it feels good, perhaps, and righteous in a left brain kind of way. You lay out over $20 at Gather for a nice chicken dinner and it’s like you’ve just donated money to your favorite save-the-planet charitable foundation. I’m not suggesting that it’s a marketing scam, but at least at the older shrines of gastronomy, like Chez Panisse, Bay Wolf, and Oliveto, the jargon—sustainable, organic, local, hand-crafted and a silly new oxymoron I read recently on a menu—wildcrafted—is kept to a dull roar. We dinosaurs can still go eat at these restaurants and not have to contemplate the planet’s, and our own, demise.
EEB: You’ve very cleverly, I might say, coined the term “Arts & Crafts cooking.” Could you talk about what that means and how you came up with it?
LJH: It just became self-evident to me that Arts & Crafts was an accurate and useful label in our local culinary context. The notion that the A&C movement’s 19th century canon can describe the “simple food” aesthetic, not merely the physical
decor, that is most identified with Chez Panisse, dawned on me when I studied Berkeley’s A&C architecture while remodeling a 100 year old Berkeley brown shingle. I came across Charles Keeler’s classic 1904 book, The Simple Home, and a light bulb lit up. All the principles of Keeler’s simple home—polemical extensions of Bernard Maybeck’s A&C building style—local/natural building materials; structural elements left exposed; houses furnished with hand-made artisan crafts, furniture and textiles—matched the principles of simple food summed up in Alice Waters’s recent book, The Art of Simple Food—fresh, local ingredients and artisanal products that are simply prepared and speak for themselves; cooking-by-hand without dependence on time-saving gadgets, etc. The connection makes perfect sense when you consider that A&C was Berkeley’s foundational Zeitgeist in the 19th century and influenced more than just architecture and design. We have more or less missed the connection because it’s so easy for the social and political movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s to mask the 19th century aesthetic and social reform roots of the food revolution. Mario Savio trumps William Morris.
EEB: Now that your Foodoodle book is done, what’s next? More culinary contrarianism, I would hope!
LJH: Yes, that’s me, a contrarian culinarian. Next will be an effort to integrate drawing and writing still further, perhaps an illustrated food and travel journal or a graphic novel. I’m also planning a series of events at Marilyn Rinzler’s Poulet (“Poulet Presents…”) where I hope to feature appearances by “Legends of the Ghetto,” like Alice Medrich of Cocolat, Bruce Aidells of Poulet, and Victoria Weiss of Pig-by-the Tail Charcuterie. There will be food and conversation related to the early days of the Gourmet Ghetto and will give the dinosaurs and their foodie offspring a chance to explore the early impulses behind our California cuisine revolution. You know the old adage, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. I think one food revolution in Berkeley is enough!
EEB: Is there anything that you consider off limits for poking fun at?
LJH: Yes. Me. . . and you, if you are nice to me.