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California Cuisine and Just Food

(article, Alice McLean)

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For anyone turned queasy by our nation’s conventional food system and the billions of empty calories it pumps into our bodies daily, California Cuisine and Just Food provides a refreshing and long overdue tonic. Seamlessly drawing together the research of six scholars, the book examines the radical mix of pleasure and politics that has earned the San Francisco Bay Area its reputation as a gastronomic mecca passionately devoted to food justice. 

The six authors focus on the region’s alternative food networks, which have helped bridge rural and urban communities to bring farmers, consumers, and chefs together. Because each author draws on his or her own field of expertise, the book provides a nuanced analysis of the historical, social, political, and environmental factors that have enabled the Bay Area to create a food system that values ethical responsibility and community welfare over financial profit and corporate growth. 

In so doing, the he book provides a blueprint for anyone interested in cultivating “the extensive pleasures of eating,” a phrase coined by [/author/WendellBerry "Wendell Berry"] in 1989 to describe a way of eating that entails “an accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.” 

As California Cuisine and Just Food shows, the Bay Area has been actively cultivating just such “an accurate consciousness” since the 1960s, when a synergy of politics and gastronomy began to gather momentum, giving rise to such anti-establishment groups as the Diggers and the Black Panthers. While the Diggers handed out free food in Golden Gate Park, the Black Panthers started one of the nation’s first school breakfast programs, serving free meals to 10,000 children every day. 

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="The San Francisco Bay Area is known for its distinctive food culture."]

By the 1970s, food cooperatives and collectives had begun to proliferate, offering concerned consumers an alternative to the conventional grocery store. What would come to be known as Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto likewise developed its distinctive palate during these years, as Peet’s Coffee & Tea, the Cheese Board Collective, and Chez Panisse each opened their doors around the intersection of Shattuck and Vine. By the end of the decade, a distribution network had been established that enabled small farms to sell directly to restaurants. In another five years, state legislation would pass allowing farmers to bypass middlemen and sell directly to consumers. 

In addition to such success stories, California Cuisine and Just Food examines the dissolution of key organizations and draws valuable conclusions about the reasons for their demise. Many, including the People’s Food Network, dissolved because they were born of an era that was reaching its natural end. Others were derailed by a shift in values. The Berkeley Co-op, for example, doomed itself by trying to go upscale in the 1980s, a move that alienated much of its membership.

The book introduces us to many of the visionary figures who created business models prioritizing sustainability and quality over profits. We meet the Straus family, who brought organic milk and dairy products to the region and, along the way, invented a machine that turns manure into electricity. We also meet the women behind Cowgirl Creamery, who took organic milk from Straus and fashioned it into a line of internationally renowned artisanal cheeses. 

Despite their success, however, such visionaries have steered clear of the profit-driven motives that define the commercial food industry. Instead, thanks in part to the strength of its radical roots in 1960s, the region “specifically nurtured a vision . . . not aim\[ed\] at making a large profit. The vision has been about building a different kind of system — one in which healthy food is available to all, one that will protect the land and provide farmers and workers a decent living, and one that builds a community in which they themselves would live and want to remain.”

This distinctive vision has likewise nourished a new Bay Area generation passionately devoted to food justice. Oakland, in particular, has seen the growth of food initiatives focused on creating a sense of empowerment and self-determination within communities damaged by food deserts. (In an urban "food desert," fresh produce is either unavailable, due to the lack of grocery stores, or extremely rare and expensive.) Organizations such as People’s Grocery work to make healthy food available to everyone by creating urban gardens, providing education and technical support for budding entrepreneurs, organizing food-delivery services, and hosting a wide range of educational programs. 

Even more recently, the region has begun to devote its considerable energy toward worker rights. For example, Young Workers United was founded in 2002; the organization has since helped raise the minimum wage in San Francisco to $8.50 an hour, and it publishes an annual guide showcasing local restaurants that are especially committed to enhancing the quality of workers’ lives. 

In a way, the fact that all of these food-politics movements were born and nurtured in California makes perfect sense, since California is where the conventional food system first started. Specialty crops, large landholdings, and exploited labor have been a defining part of the California landscape since as far back as the late 1700s. It's logical that a backlash — a quest for healthy, sustainable, and just food — would have started here.

By teasing out the “connections between the evolving conventional food system and the struggle for civil and human rights in California and U.S. history,” California Cuisine and Just Food not only provides an invaluable history lesson, but also drives home the importance of eating with “an accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.” 

In terms of readability, this rather academic book is more like a steak than a syllabub. It may require a bit of chewing as an aid to digestion, but the vital substance it provides makes it well worth the effort.

p(bio). Alice L. McLean is an author and food-studies scholar who tends artichokes and fava beans in El Cerrito, California.


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