As I wrap up the excruciating process that is writing my senior essay, I’ve been thinking about some of the Great Big Ideas that have come out of the paper that will hopefully stay with me as a badge for losing so much sleep. I would say that sounds cheesy, but I’m writing about a fad diet that people followed in the 1970s, and cheese was actually forbidden, so I won’t.
To elaborate, I’ve been working on a history of the macrobiotic diet (a regimen of brown rice and vegetables), trying to understand the ways in which the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s intersected with issues of food and agriculture. Fearful of environmental contaminants, skeptical of the ingredients in processed foods and infatuated with the potential curative powers of Eastern mysticism, folks — mostly young folks — took to eating “health foods” as a way to maintain some semblance of control within a society they believed was uncontrollable.
In his book, “Appetite for Change,” food historian Warren Belasco dubbed this food trend the “counter-cuisine,” which developed in opposition to mainstream norms. Brown, unprocessed, “natural” bread opposed suburban, industrial, additive-laden white bread. Cooking and eating communally would replace convenience foods that were canned or frozen for the sake of saving time.
For proponents of this counter-cuisine, food choices were a means of subversion. To avoid meat entirely was to eschew the meat industry; to eat organically grown food, free of pesticides, was to oppose the military-industrial complex that brought pesticides into being in the first place. Communal cooking by women and men blurred the boundaries of dearly held gender roles, just as men began to grow their hair out. Eating to prevent disease challenged the authority of the doctor and the medical industry in matters of personal health. In a suburb where the supermarket was chock full of “plastic” foods, a small co-op of “natural” fare offered culinary refuge. Food choices were political, and radically so.
Food’s political valence reflected the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, part and parcel to the greater yearning for social change put forth by the countercultural types. As students at Yale demonstrated against an unfair criminal justice system during the trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale in 1970, they fed each other brown rice between chants. A year later, Yale’s dining hall director announced that macrobiotic health foods would be served, recognizing that “people are becoming increasingly concerned about their environment and consequently, the quality of the food they eat.” Food was a powerful political medium for the countercultural movement because it was a tool of protest, where demonstration was daily and personal.
As Belasco argues, food became less and less political as the food industry began to co-opt the tropes of the counterculture — the very capitalist machine the counterculture attempted to subvert through eating alternatively. Even if natural foods were no longer protestant, they nevertheless endured, thanks to the vision and imagination of the counterculture.
To me, the power of the student activists to envision new ways of living and thinking and bring them into reality is nothing short of inspiring. The most extreme forms of this struggle for utopia played out on communes, which were free from the interference of the rest of society and its technological demons. But college campuses in the 1960s were particularly powder-keggish places of foment. A commune in its own right, the university functioned as the stage for student protests against the war in Vietnam, environmental degradation, racism, censorship and the rest of the issues with which the Left was most concerned.
The idea of protest as a “living theater,” where students could perform their visions for a better future through demonstration, resonates. That college could be a Petri dish for new ways of organizing society is awesome, if not a little scary. And I hedge at the idea that, should we grow some cultures we like, we have to spread them immediately.
That’s the Great Big Idea, and now I’m thinking about how living theater might manifest on this campus in the future as it has in the past. People who questioned the protests last semester often wielded the idea of the “real world” to explain how reimagining one’s surroundings was for naught. But using college as a sort of social sandbox helps us avoid essentializing problems that persist in the “real world” as necessary or inevitable. The counterculture sparked change because it refused to take the status quo as absolute.
The counterculture may have died down, but such is the transient nature of college. I’m graduating soon, but if you aren’t, and you’re reading this: Play in the sandbox.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .