It 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 ’68 - the annus mirabilis of the 20th century. “Columbia ’68-08” – a four-day conference in April 2008 - 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 stood on stage and read 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.
Dozens 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 - 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 a la Upton Sinclair, and the feature film inspired by the book uses the bloody slaughterhouse as a disturbing metaphor for America itself.
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 California 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 ecological.
In McNamee’s pages, Waters is charming. In the Sixties, she planted one foot in the cultural revolution, and another 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 ’44 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 “foodies.” It took them a while to accept what author and environmentalist Wendell Barry 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 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” that incited class animosity.
When I asked Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz – a feminist, anti-war activist, and the author of Outlaw Woman - about food in the Sixties, she remembered ‘68 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 Artiste, you risked condemnation by young men and women rebelling against their bourgeois parents.
Recent memoirs by Sixties radicals like Carl Oglesby - the President of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) from 1966 to 1967 - 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 ’68, Oglesby and the SDSers would have laughed at Alice Waters’ 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 ‘n’ 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 Bunuel’s ironical 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 that’s symbolized by the dinner party. More than any single movie, The Discreet Charm embodies the political vision of the Sixties Left in France, America, Spain and Mexico, and that’s understandable since Bunuel was a surrealist with anarchist sympathies. “Bunuel incriminates all social orders while liberating our awareness of the outcast, the deformed, the madmen,” Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote. Bunuel 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.
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.
At the end of the conference at Columbia, I ate with the organizers: gourmet herbed chicken and salads from Zabars, 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 ’08 they “came to their senses,” as Alice Waters would have 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 about 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 barbecuing. Ruth Reichel abandoned her Berkeley commune, began to review for The Los Angles Times and went on to become the editor of Gourmet.
Julia Child published The French Chef Cookbook in ’68. 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, bouillabaisse and more. If we’re foodies now, as I like to think, we’re also all the children of Julia Child.