Food-Centric Reformers

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in: Politics

Current trends in food, such as the farmers market movement, political stands against unhealthy processed foods, even Michelle Obama’s war on childhood obesity, are only the latest manifestations of the urge to reform America by reforming what we eat.  Americans have always been drawn to reform movements, and food frequently has been the centerpiece of activism. In the early part of the19th century, Sylvester Graham campaigned for a Spartan plant-based diet devoid of all condiments and spices, which he believed excited the nervous system and led to unrestrained sexuality.  His philosophy was picked up later in that century when John Harvey Kellogg established the influential Battle Creek Sanitarium where he advocated vegetarianism with an emphasis on whole grains, vigorous exercise and abstinence from tobacco and alcohol.

While the tone of these reformers was moralistic, later food activists were no less high-minded, especially in the 1960s and ’70s, when America had reached another period of reform. Opposed to the Vietnam War, some young people expressed their feelings of alienation by withdrawing to the hills of Vermont and other rural areas to live off the land. With little experience in farming, they nevertheless formed collectives and pledged to eat only an organically-grown vegetarian diet.  At the same time, a feminist movement had taken hold in America and women on communes could not help but notice they were taking care of the children, doing the cooking and even doing most of the farming while the men spent their time in deep discussions or arguments as they made all the important decisions for the group. No wonder women decided to form their own communes.

Bloodroot Collective

One such group, the Bloodroot Collective, established a restaurant in Bridgeport, Conn. and wrote cookbooks. In “The Political Palate, a Feminist Vegetarian Cookbook,” the group recognized that women were oppressed by the patriarchy and declared their opposition to all forms of oppression. “Our food is vegetarian,” they say, “because … we are opposed to the exploitation, domination, and destruction which come from factory farming and the hunter with the gun.” Their food philosophy included the use of seasonal, organically grown food and the eventual exclusion of meat, fish, and dairy foods as they moved toward a vegan way of life. Unlike the rural communes that dissipated in the 1970s after an initial flurry of enthusiasm, the Bloodroot Restaurant continues to thrive since its founding 33 years ago, offering services from knitting classes to cooking classes to organizing lesbian and gay weddings. The collective expresses a feminism that deplores corporate assaults on the environment, and the inherent threats of unchecked technology — issues that haunt us today as we wring our hands over the uncontained BP oil disaster.

Reformers have thrown their energies into many other important social causes, sometimes publishing community cookbooks to assist in their efforts. To aid the United Farm Workers, for example, a group calling itself the “Bazaar Cookbook Committee” produced in 1976 “The Food We Eat: Favorite Recipes from Friends of the United Farmworkers.” This book is a reminder of the successful grape boycott that began in the 1960s in support of California pickers who were working for poor wages in conditions that were substandard. Children born of socially conscious parents during that period never saw a grape until the boycott was resolved. In our own time, the cause of seasonal pickers is no longer of great interest as our national attention has instead been shifted to issues around illegal immigrants, and concerns over genetically-modified crops.

Gay Jewish cooking comes out of the closet

Yet another social movement, that of gay and lesbian rights, is illustrated by the 1987 cookbook, “Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking,” which could only have appeared in the post-Stonewall era when the cause of gay and lesbian rights was finally taken seriously. In founding its own synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the group believed that cooking played a significant role in the development of its goals, which included a savvy reciprocity so that at Hanukkah “the men made the latkes and the women didn’t.”  The book is about community, about people pulling together to achieve a purpose that will live on after them, and the nobility of institution-building. Members of this community set out to form nontraditional families within a culture that does not always understand and respect their way of life, reverberations heard today as California and other states continue to debate the legitimacy of gay marriage.

“Out of Our Kitchen Closets,” like the cookbooks produced by the Bloodroot Collective, illustrates a cause led by people who hope to change the ways in which Americans think about issues. By using food as the emblem of their causes, reformers — from the 19th century to this day — manage to grab the attention of the public because people instinctively know the importance of food as essential to life and as a symbol of health, justice, and social change.

Top photo: Hippie commune vegetarianism reflected a larger political movement. Credit: ©Lisa Law, www.flashingonthesixties.com.


Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

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