Special Series on Cookbook Literature/Historiography #2: Environmental Countercultural Cookbooks

This post is the second in our new series providing a literature review of cookbook scholarship. Click here for the first post of the series: cookbooks as scholarly resources

Environmental Countercultural Cookbooks
American countercultural cookbooks circulated during the 1970s and 1980s were responding to the over-processed foods and strict gender roles of the post-war period. However, mainstream cookbooks reified cultural norms. Technologies developed during the Second World War, further bolstered the already ongoing Green Revolution in which new machinery, high yielding varieties of cereals, and the use of chemicals changed the agricultural landscape with an increase in pesticide usage, larger farms, and the consolidation of farmland into fewer property owners’ control. Out of the war, too, came the manufacturing of newly highly-processed and mass marketed food products such as powdered soups, cake mixes, and ready-to-eat meals. Marketing campaigns sold gender ideology alongside pudding mix and mainstream cookbooks echoed the sentiments. Those same cookbooks reified a way of cooking and eating that supported corporate and chemical agriculture and food products.
Countercultural cookbooks focusing on environmental issues responded to environmental degradation and poverty worsened by certain farming practices and eating habits; consumerism, capitalism, and corporatization; workplace inequity and unjust labor practices. Food studies scholar Warren J. Belasco shows that an environmental ethos existed within in various groups of the countercultural movements in the 1960s and 1970s, which led to an emphasis on “natural foods”(2014). Historian Adam Rome likewise states that “the increasing overlap between countercultural and radical thinking was part of the larger trend that pollster Daniel Yankelovich termed “the new naturalism””(2013: 46). The new naturalism philosophy involved a wariness of unrestrained economic and technological growth for fear of its harmful impact on the environment. While individuals expressed these ideas in various ways, one of the most visible, then and even today, was a changing relationship to food.Food served a variety of purposes. It could function as the mode to persuade people to come to meetings for civil rights, anti-war, women's liberation, and other causes. An abundance or lack of food was a real issue embodied by those participating in various countercultural movements.  Food was a mode by which to explore issues of labor, class, pollution, health, gender, race, transnationalism, and animal rights. As part of “new naturalism,” the idea of the goodness of “natural” foods rapidly spread. While the term “natural” could be co-opted by various groups from all sides of the political and economic spectrum from young hippies living on communes as part of the back to the land movement to major food corporations re-branding their own products in order to negate consumer pushback and public relations fall out, the legacy of natural foods, whatever their meaning, made a significant impact. In the 1970s new businesses served to fulfill the desire for natural foods. Although food co-ops had existed previously in American history, especially as a way to increase the purchasing power of the black community in the early 20th century, the food co-ops of the 1960s and 1970s captured the imagination of white, middle class America, catering to people wanting to buy grains in bulk.  Restaurants could serve a similar function, while offering a space for community formation. Alternative restaurants sold “natural foods,” often alongside a healthy serving of politics; so did cookbooks.
Vegetarian cookbooks dominated the environmental, countercultural, “natural foods” market. As head of the one of the world’s largest food and cookery collections at the Fales Library and Special Collections of New York University, Marvin Taylor, noted referring to the 1970s, “the hippie-inspired vegetarian and eco-friendly activist cookbooks raised our awareness of the need for humanely and organically produced foods” (Nestle et al., 2012:15). Both Tristram Stuart (2008) and Colin Spencer’s (2000) histories of vegetarianism, provide context to the long histories of vegetarianism and how it has been taken up in the Western context; Spencer’s work in particular links these roots to the countercultural movements of the 1960s through 1980s. 
Notable books included Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook (1969) by Alice May Brock andAlice Bay Laurel’s Living on the Earth: Celebrations, Storm Warnings, Formulas, Recipes, Rumours, Country Dances Harvest”(1971). The calligraphic style of typography of the book, reproducing Laurel’s handwriting, launched a trend for other homespun and occasionally psychadelic designs in later counterculture cookbooks. The publication of the New York Times’ Natural Foods Cookbookby Jean Hewitt (1971), a book dedicated to “the thousands of people across the country who believe in, and practice, the natural way of eating for good health,” showed the popularity of this type of cookbook. Also in 1971, Frances Moore Lappé released Diet for a Small Planet. While it was a primarily recipe book, it also served as a political manifesto, touching on global hunger, food scarcity, and environmental vegetarianism. Ita Jones’Grub Bag: An Underground Cookbook, too, was published in 1971, and Lucy Horton’s Country Commune Cooking followed in 1972. The next year, Anna Thomas, released The Vegetarian Epicure, with the goal of introducing the gourmet world to vegetarian food (1973). In 1976, Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godrey, released the vegetarian Laurel’s Kitchen, in which they criticized the farm to table process. While not vegetarian, Southern cook and daughter of emancipated slaves, Edna Lewis, wrote the popular Taste of Country Cooking. She stressed the importance of food organically grown and from open-pollinated seed (1976). In 1974, Mollie Katzen hand wrote, illustrated, and locally published a spiral-bound notebook of recipes of vegetarian dishes from the restaurant. By 1977, Mollie Katzen released the Moosewood Cookbook, the first of over 13 vegetarian cookbooks that would stem from the Mossewood Restaurant of Ithaca, New York restaurant founded in 1973. In Katzen's own words, the cookbook grew out of a loose-leaf binder filled with notes to help keep track of what they were cooking, as no one in the collective identified as a culinary professional but rather as a group of friends “taking turns in the kitchen cooking heartfelt versions of the food we loved, beginning with family favorites, ... [and] also greatly inspired by international dishes as remembered from various world travels” (2014: ix). Speaking to the idea of naturalness, Katzen stated that “we cooked simply and with passion, cheerfully pushing back on the traditional American dinner plate of the 1950s and 60s-- the model that fed our childhoods. Now in our young adulthood, we wanted to redefine and self-define, and this was a perfect arena in which to do so” (2014: ix). While these cookbooks were not inherently feminist, they were all were written by women. These primarily vegetarian, countercultural cookbooks highlighted the voices of women involved in environmental and countercultural movements -- voices often sidelined for the men at the front of the march with the loudspeaker. 
Some of the books did in fact bring in gender politics into the discussion, although that was not the emphasis. These countercultural books stressed vegetarianism and the importance of natural foods but occasionally they involved talk of gender roles. For example, Laurel Robertson in InLaurel’s Kitchen called women the “‘keeper of the keys’ ... to the household, to its storerooms, attics, chests, and cupboards, [which] was a position of great responsibility and, therefore, of great honor” (1976:39).According to Robertson, women had the ability to influence the fate of the planet by returning to the frugal practices of their grandmothers by using resources wisely, pushing back against certain feminist criticisms of the traditional role of women in communal life. Although commune women did not receive the satisfaction of a paycheck or promotion, “no other job or career involvement [could] be quite so effective in bringing about the world we all want to see”(1976: 48). Robertson rejected what she saw as some feminists’ dismissal of reproductive labor, while not acknowledging the work that other feminists, particularly Italian Marxist feminists, were doing meanwhile to not only bring greater respect but working towards the remuneration of the tasks of cooking and homemaking. Robertson’s discussion of gender was divorced from a larger discussion of the power of patriarchy and capitalism, advocating instead for a kind of separate spheres feminism that left many women vulnerable to exploitation (Elias 2008: 160). Historian Sherrie A. Inness discusses how women who did not decide to explicitly speak about feminism during the 1970s often focused on vegetarian or “natural foods” as a way to engage with the politics of the period (2006: 83-104). Playing on essentialist ideas of “naturalness,” these women used the socially naturalized role of the woman in the kitchen but subverted this role by opening small businesses, or in this case writing cookbooks, that allowed them to financially support themselves while promoting their political views. In this sense, the woman in the kitchen was not passive, but rather active in her role. Yet, the relationship between vegetarian cooking and health food ideologies was not in fact seamless. Natural foods movements fed into food faddism, health, and diet movements that had deleterious effects on girls and women’s self esteem, body satisfaction and health (Wilson 2002: 95-96). However, despite these complications, most countercultural vegetarian “natural foods” cookbooks focused on the environment and food politics and buried or neglected a discussion of gender, race, and sexual orientation inequities. Other cookbooks took on the challenge of gender roles more explicitly.

by Dr. Alex Ketchum