How hippies and brown bread birthed the whole grain movement
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People involved in the 1960s and 1970s counterculture movement stood up to protest what they considered the moving forces behind the industralization of corporate food manufacturing. Their food-centric forms of civil disobedience resulted in the popularization of many foods we still eat today: granola, tofu, soymilk, and maybe even the toast you had this morning. Their food movement is the topic of the book Hippie Food by Jonathan Kauffman. Our contributor Joe Yonan, Food and Dining Editor of The Washington Post, talked with the Kauffman specifically about America’s reintroduction to brown bread.
Joe Yonan: Why did hippies or the long-hairs – the revolutionaries that you write about – why did they take up making whole wheat bread?
Jonathan Kauffman: The counterculture natural food movement was oriented around the idea that we needed to avoid industrialized foods. That meant any food that was grown with pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and that was made with all kinds of additives and flavorings. They wanted to go back to a simpler way of cooking and eating whole foods as much as possible, so they could escape the industrialized food supply. And because bread was so central to the American diet, they figured that changing the bread they ate and learning how to bake it was taking control over their health.
JY: Where did the hippies start baking this brown bread?
JK: One of my favorite stories about the early period – the late 1960s – was in San Francisco in the Haight-Asbury during the Summer of Love. There was this group of hippies who called themselves the Diggers, and they were the radical philosophers of the hippie scene. They used guerilla theater and big street parties to shock people into thinking about the world in new ways. They were also concerned about all the teenagers who were taking a bus to San Francisco and showing up with no money and no good sense of how to live once they arrived among the flower children. And so, they began dishing out stew in Golden Gate Park. Anybody who could bring a spoon and a bowl could eat for free. An engineer from Palo Alto named Walt Reynolds heard about this and he decided they needed to have bread as well. He drove up to this church in the Haight-Ashbury with hundred-pound sacks of flour and a ton of coffee cans and he taught them how to make these cylindrical loaves. They were so successful that they began baking hundreds of loaves of bread to give away every week. Then they gave that recipe out to everybody.
Photo: Russell Yip
JY: It sounds like this recipe was really part of the resistance, wasn’t it?
JK: Oh yeah. You have to remember that for most of the baby boomers bread was fluffy, snow-white, chemically enhanced Wonder Bread. There was a rise in consciousness at the same time of all the food additives and preservatives that were needed to make white bread into white bread. They started calling it plastic bread; for them it wasn’t real.
JY: Back to those cans of brown bread. Did it taste good?
JK: What I heard from the people who were baking it was that it depended on the baker. Some of the early experiments with whole wheat baking were not great. The macrobiotic diet, which was also popular in this early hippie era, didn’t believe in yeasted breads. They felt like they were dangerously unhealthy. You would have macrobiotic kids baking one-pound bricks of dough and slicing them into very thin slices; that was the only way you could eat them.
JY: I’m assuming it must have gotten better. How did they learn to bake whole wheat bread that was more interesting?
JK: As with much of the diet, practice helped. So many people had this idea of what hippie food was based on those early experiments where you had all these kids who didn’t know how to bake or work with any of these new ingredients. I think the most influential teacher of baking was Edward Espe Brown, who was a monk at the San Francisco Zen Center and the head cook at the Tassajara Zen Monastery in Northern California. He had learned how to experiment and make good brown bread from a couple of older folks. It was so good that he decided that he should write a book that would teach people not just a recipe but how bread should look, feel and small when you’re kneading it. The recipe he came up with was so reliable and tasty that the Tassajara Bread Book, which came out in 1971, took off and became a best-seller.
JY: It somehow isn’t surprising that it all comes back to a monk when it comes to bread baking.
JK: He was all about this sense of presence, of being present with the dough when you’re making it. It’s very romantic, as well as practical.
JY: Is this where community bakeries got their start?
JK: It was. A lot of the counterculture kids weren’t just interested in improving their health, but also wanted to create a new economy that was outside of large-scale capitalism and the industrialized food supply. During the 1970s, in college towns, small cities and major cities all over the country, a number of collectively run bakeries formed. Many of them based their core recipe on Edward Brown’s Tassajara bread recipe. They would work for very little money – almost volunteer positions – in order to produce healthy food as cheaply as possible.
JY: Give me some names of these bakeries. Who were they?
JK: Some of my favorites were Wild Flower in Ann Arbor. In Buffalo, a bakery called Yeast West. In San Francisco, we had the People’s Bakery. In Berkeley, there was another one called Uprisings.
Hippie Food by Jonathan Kauffman
JY: Do any of them still exist?
JK: Very few. There is one bakery in Tempe, Arizona. I’m forgetting the name right now, but it is still around. I got to talk to the baker who founded it. And in the Bay Area, we have Alvarado Street Baking, which has become a much larger enterprise that sells whole wheat breads in supermarkets all over Norther California.
JY: You write a lot about how the hippies affected what we eat today. Can we thank them for our current obsession with whole grains?
JK: We can. Back in the 1970s, when you look at early nutritionists and what they were saying about whole wheat bread and brown rices, they were really poo-pooing it. They felt like there was no real nutritional advantage to eating whole wheat bread over regular bread – as long as you ate a balanced diet. But in the late 1970s, scientists and nutritionists began discovering the beneficial effects of fiber, and all of a sudden, this kooky diet started making a lot more sense.
Now, even the USDA recommends that we eat half of our grains as whole grains. Even more recently, there’s this interest in baking circles in heirloom grains and ancient grains. There’s a whole new crop of bakers who are inspired by Chad Robertson at Tartine Bakery. They are baking airy, crusty, beautiful sourdough loaves. It’s some of the best bread that you can find in the United States.