By the mid-1960s, a period of social and political upheaval had begun. In the US and around the world, there were wide spread protests against the Vietnam War. Young people, the rebellious baby boomer generation, rejected the conservative values of their parents and denounced the industrialization of much of North American culture. The sixties’ counter culture emerged as young people followed Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” They experimented with drugs and alternative lifestyles.
Warren Belasco outlines the impact that the counterculture had on food in the 1960s and 1970s. He believes that both language and cuisine enable the development of cultural identities. The rejection of the industrialized, “plastic” foods was a key signifier of the 1960s counter culture. In his discussion of the counter culture, Belasco presents a series of six binary oppositions that describe the cultural identity of the 1960-70s counter cuisine in relation to the mainstream.
Belasco’s Binary Oppositions on Counter Culture Food
The counter cuisine that emerged championed natural, local foods, such as whole wheat breads and brown rice, over the heavily manufactured “white” food, such as Wonder Bread and Instant Rice that had become the norm in North America.
The prevailing view was that manufacturing alienated people from the process of growing, harvesting, preparing, distributing and consuming food. In addition, they believed that the industrialized food system was unfair to farmers and farm workers.
The counter cuisine movement promoted the growing and cooking of natural foods through organic gardening and preparing dishes from scratch.
It rejected both the mainstream models of French fine dining and industrialized fast food in favour of vegetarianism and spicy ethnic foods. Many members of the counter culture moved to rural communes where they grew their own food and, in some cases, raised and butchered their own animals. In cities, the natural, whole foods from local sources were sold in natural food stores. Natural food vegetarian restaurants were started in cities across the U.S. and Canada.
To be a member of the counterculture, a person had to participate in the process of cuisine: growing, cooking and eating whole, natural food. While Wonder Bread was representative of the mainstream; making whole grain bread by hand was a required ritual for membership in the counterculture.
While the early counterculture of the mid-1960s focused on demonstrative rebellion and rejection of the mainstream, in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the focus was on ecology and sustainability. Belasco references two publications which were instrumental in supporting counter cuisine.
The Whole Earth Catalog which was published regularly from 1968 to 1972, getting its name from the NASA photo of the earth from space. The catalog provided information on tools and sources for holistic, organic farming and ecological living.
The second publication, Diet for a Small Planet, became a manifesto for the ecological movement. It outlined how the existing system of feeding protein grains to cattle was inefficient as it required large areas of land, fertilizer, water, herbicides and pesticides while the end result did not produce an equal amount of protein for humans.
The book proposed that a vegetarian diet was nutritionally adequate with beans, nuts, grains and dairy products. Such a diet would free up land to produce more cereal and vegetable foodstuffs to feed the world’s hungry.
Warren Belasco (1982) “Radical Therapy: The Oppositional Identity,” Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, New York, Pantheon;
Linda Civitello (2011) Cuisine & Culture: A History of Food & People; Wikipedia.