Summer 2008
The Redwood Coast Review
Page 3
eating politics
Child’s Children: Food and the 1960s radical
Jonah Raskin
t wasn’t earthshaking, and won’t make the pages of
history, but it was steeped in a sense of the past, and it
transported me back to 1968—the annus mirabilis of the
20th century. “Columbia ’68-08”—a four-day conference
in April—covered a lot of political ground. Five hundred
former Columbia students argued, debated and reminisced
about their days on the barricades. Mary Gordon and Paul
Auster read from their fiction; I offered an excerpt from my
autobiography, Out of the Whale (1974), that pokes fun at
the students of 68 for their “peanut butter and jelly revolution”—and no one booed.
Oddly enough, not a word—except my fleeting comment—was uttered about food, though food might have been
on the agenda. Eating has been intensely politicized ever
since the Romans offered bread and circuses to appease the
masses. Today, there’s more good writing about food and
wine than ever before, and much of it tackles thorny topics,
as evident in the anthology, Best Food Writing, that Holly
Hughes has edited every year for the past eight years.
Scores of new cookbooks are published every year, and,
like fresh produce, they’re remarkably perishable. In 2008,
who indeed would want to serve and eat the rich dishes that
Julia Child prepared on TV in 1968: endives a la meuniere,
and braised goose with prune and liver stuffing? What’s also
startling is that American chefs have had a habit of filching
recipes from other cultures, like Mexican and Thai, and then
eliminating their essential ingredients. Even Molly Katzen’s
mouth-watering Moosewood Cookbook (1977), which seems
at first glance to respect styles of cooking from around the
world, establishes American food as the norm, and turns
Mexican salsa, for example, into something bland.
Occasionally, books about food sink their teeth into
the culture at large. Michael Pollan’s polemical works The
Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and In Defense of Food: An
Eater’s Manifesto (2008) have rallied shoppers and riled the
agribusiness behemoth. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation resurrects the best muckraking journalism à la Upton
Sinclair, and the feature film inspired by the book uses the
bloody slaughterhouse as a disturbing metaphor for America
It’s no wonder that Alice Waters, the founder of Chez
Panisse—the flagship Berkeley restaurant that transformed
American eating habits—wants Pollan to run for president,
Schlosser for vice president. How Waters married Cali-
Born in 1944 and the right
age to be Julia Child’s daughter, Waters belongs to the same
generation that rejected food as
bourgeois in 1968, and it’s curious to me—as a sixties rebel and
an aficionado of French cooking—that the rebels of yesterday
evolved into today’s “foodies.”
fornia produce to French cuisine is a riveting story that
Thomas McNamee tells with gusto in Alice Waters and
Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric,
Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution (2007).
McNamee covers nearly five decades of culinary history, and
uses Waters to tell a story that’s bigger than she and Chez
Panisse combined. “How we eat can change the world,”
Waters says, and means far more than one might think,
since food in her gastronomical universe is linked to matters
In McNamee’s pages, Waters is charming. In the sixties, she planted one foot in the cultural revolution, and the
other in front of the TV to watch Julia Child. Today, Waters
defends the world’s organic farmers. I heard her speak about
her new book, The Art of Simple Food (2007), and found her
inspiring. Her “delicious revolution,” as she calls it, relies on
utensils as ordinary as forks, knives and spoons, and promises to bring people “back to their senses.”
Born in 1944 and the right age to be Julia Child’s daughter, Waters belongs to the same generation that rejected
food as bourgeois in 68, and it’s curious to me—as a sixties
rebel and an aficionado of French cooking—that the rebels
of yesterday evolved into today’s “foodies.” It took them a
while to accept what author and environmentalist Wendell
Berry has said for ages: that “eating is an agricultural act.”
Of course, peasants and workers do it—not just the elite.
Forty years ago LSD, not carbs and calories, mattered to a
generation that had lost faith in the American dream. “Feed
your head,” Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane sang, and
a great many members of the counterculture devoured psychedelic drugs. I also remember the slogan “Eat the Rich.”
When I asked Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz—a feminist,
anti-war activist, and the author of Outlaw Woman—about
food in the Sixties, she remembered 1968 as a pivotal year.
“I cared a lot about food at the start of 68, having had a
French-Mexican boyfriend,” she said. “After we split up at
the end of 68, I became a vegetarian, ate mainly brown rice,
and decided eating at restaurants and caring about food was
bourgeois.” That’s how I remember the zeitgeist of 68, too,
though I didn’t take Roxanne’s path. If you lived in New
York, as I did and ate frogs’ legs, mussels and sweetbreads
at Café des Artistes, you risked condemnation by young men
and women rebelling against their bourgeois parents.
left in France, America, Spain and Mexico, and that’s
understandable since Buñuel was a surrealist with anarchist
sympathies. “Buñuel incriminates all social orders while
liberating our awareness of the outcast, the deformed, the
madmen,” Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote. Buñuel
also incriminates the left, though he shows sympathy for the
film’s female terrorist who is arrested by the police; she carries
vegetables in her satchel and has a connection to the earth.
Minnie Driver, Stanley Tucci, Tony Shaloub and Isabella Rosselini in Big Night
ecent memoirs by sixties radicals like Carl Oglesby
—the president of Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS) from 1966 to 67—give the impression that protesters lived on adrenaline and dreams of a final confrontation
with law and order. In Ravens in the Storm (2008), the only
people who care about food are Oglesby’s redneck relatives who consume thousands of calories in a single sitting:
fried chicken, corn, biscuits, hushpuppies, stuffing, mashed
potatoes, dumplings and peach cobbler. In the author’s view,
that kind of eating is emblematic of a society careening out
of control and oblivious of disaster.
In 1968, Oglesby and the SDSers would have laughed at
Alice Waters’s notion that one could change the world by
eating. John Sinclair, the author of Guitar Army—and his
fellow rebels in the White Panther Party—insisted that rock
and roll would make the revolution. In Woodstock Nation,
Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies, called on the longhaired,
pot-smoking hippies who attended the Woodstock music
festival to bring down the American Empire by dropping
out. Even Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969), which
stars folksinger Arlo Guthrie, has surprisingly little to do
with food. The words “Eat Me” that are spelled out in icing
on a birthday cake are more of an invitation to oral sex than
to eating. Alice’s Restaurant is about hippie pipe dreams,
and when Alice’s aging-hippie husband Ray suggests that
the commune move to Vermont and grow vegetables—which
seems reasonable to a viewer today—the film’s misfits think
he’s mad. The director does, too.
The ravenous characters in Luis Buñuel’s 1973 movie
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois are mad to eat, drink
and enact the rituals of the French ruling class. Everything
conspires against them and their orderly world symbolized by the dinner party. More than any other movie, The
Discreet Charm embodies the political vision of the 1960s
Books and Movies Mentioned
Holly Hughes, Best Food Writing
Molly Katzen, The Moosewood Cookbook
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation
Thomas McNamee, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse
Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food
Carl Oglesby, Ravens in the Storm
Julia Child, The French Chef Cookbook
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Outlaw Woman
John Sinclair, Guitar Army
Abbie Hoffman, Woodstock Nation
Arthur Penn, Alice’s Restaurant
Luis Buñuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, Big Night
Norman Jewison, Moonstruck
Donald Petrie, Mystic Pizza
There’s nothing charming about the Catholic priest who
murders an old farmer, nothing charming about the police
who torture their prisoners, and nothing discreet about the
cocaine-smuggling ambassador from the mythical country of
Miranda. Only at the end of the film does the undiplomatic
diplomat satisfy his hunger; under the table he eats alone
and it’s a comic scene in a cinematic masterpiece that blends
dream, nightmare and quotidian reality.
Of the many recent movies that include food—Mystic
Pizza and Moonstruck, for example—my favorite is Stanley
Tucci’s and Campbell Scott’s Big Night (1996), which tells
the saga of an Italian restaurant named Paradise and the
relationship between the brothers who can’t make a go of it.
Though Big Night takes place in the 1950s, it never could
have been made then; it requires a savvy audience that
knows how to cook risotto properly, and that knows, too,
that Italian food lost much of its authenticity when Italians
landed in America. The revival of rustic Italian cooking
in the United States in the 1990s, and the birth of foodies,
made Big Night possible.
t the end of the conference at Columbia, I ate with the
organizers: gourmet herbed chicken and salads from
Zabar’s, the Broadway delicatessen that has sold smoked
salmon, bagels and more since the 1930s. As soon as they
were out of the 68 bubble, and back in 2008, they “came
to their senses,” as Alice Waters would put it. I didn’t have
a hand in organizing the event, but if I had I would have
scheduled a sit-down dinner, perhaps even a banquet with
organic food and wine. After all, 1968 was also cuisine
though it wasn’t apparent at the time to the revolutionaries.
Soon after 68, they fell in love with food: Abbie Hoffman
became a restaurant critic for Playboy; Bobby Seale of the
Black Panther Party wrote and published a book about barbeque. Ruth Reichl abandoned her Berkeley commune and
eventually went on to become the editor of Gourmet.
Julia Child published The French Chef Cookbook in
1968. Based on her popular TV show, it introduced French
cooking to Americans and transformed the ways we ate.
Granted, the students of 68 didn’t watch Julia on TV; they
were too busy watching themselves. But their mothers,
aunts and older sisters watched the show, bought the book,
borrowed the recipes and imitated Julia’s style, while French
students and workers protested in Paris. It was a pivotal
year for both French chefs and French revolutionaries, and
the start of a gastronomical revolution in America in which
Julia Child, a California-born woman with a love of France,
persuaded the masses to appreciate aioli, vinaigrette, bouillabaise and more. If we’re foodies now, as I like to think,
we’re also all the children of Julia Child. Jonah Raskin’s latest book is The Radical Jack London:
Writings on War and Revolution (California). He is an RCR
contributing editor. Most of the books mentioned are available through Coast Community Library.