Groovin’ with the Hipsters

I’m (finally) reading a book written several years ago by Warren Belasco, an American studies professor, and also an engaging writer who I hope to meet during some conference hobnobbing later this year in New Orleans. It’s called Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry and, as the title suggests, tells the hurlyburly, but entertaining and sometimes disturbing story of the rise and fall, in the 60s and 70s, of the “counter” food culture – the hippies and the macrobiotics, the vegetarians and the communards (none of these were mutually exclusive, of course) who set out to topple the system by eating tofu and lentils, getting naked and baking their own bread from whole grains.

It’s a fascinating read, for several reasons, but mostly because of how familiar everything is, and it reminds, again, of how short (or non-existent) cultural memory is. Consider this advice, from the late 60s: ‘Think primitive. Avoid anything complex, anything you can’t pronounce, anything chemical, synthetic, or plastic’. And here are some of Michael Pollan‘s recommendations for how to eat in the twenty-first century: ‘Eat food’; ‘Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable’; ‘Get out of the supermarket’.

Now I’m not suggesting that Pollan is guilty of anything beginning with ‘p’. The point is more about how we forget the inevitable cycles of things and make everything “new”, though in truth, many of the panics and scares – even fashions, like fusion food – we go through to do with food have been visited before. Of course contexts (economic, political, whatever) change, but it is precisely an index of our complacency with media and hegemonic infrastructures that we allow ourselves to get into panics about anything. The short version of this argument must be that if we stopped to think for ourselves at all, we wouldn’t need to be told – not in the 60s, nor again this century – how to eat (and neither would we need to be subjected to Rachael Ray’s Yum-o campaign to eradicate childhood obesity).

Anyway, this isn’t all a critic’s rant: I, too, like to bake my own bread, so I especially enjoyed this bit: ‘Bread baking was … a ritualistic affirmation of membership in a subculture that viewed itself in direct opposition to the plastic death culture. Baking bread took a lot of time, but that was the point. After first tasting a homebaked loaf, [hippy cookbook writer] Ita Jones had to bake her own, even if it took a whole afternoon – indeed, precisely because it took a whole afternoon’.

There. My secret is out. Forget about fighting the system; baking bread is quite simply the best form of procrastination, and (unlike stoopid muffins), always delicious! Look at this number I just pulled out the oven, which took not just an afternoon, but a whole day:

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No, I shouldn’t give the wrong idea. The truth is that it took hardly any time at all. The dough needs time, but very little of my time: on afternoon one, throw together a dough – this one is half rye, half stone-ground wholewheat (from Beaumont wine farm), pulled together with yoghurt and beer, a touch of molasses, caraway seeds and a very little bit of yeast (the yoghurt and beer help to give a soured taste when you don’t have real time to do a sourdough; for long rising times, a little yeast goes a long way). Knead it well and put it in the fridge until you have time for part two (the next day sometime), which involves taking it out the fridge and letting it warm up a little, then another little knead and finally the fun bit of shaping a loaf, rolling a baguette, or making whatever shape you like your bread in. Then heat up the oven, put it in, sit back and await the smell.

(And here’s the bonus: you can actually do OTHER stuff, like WORK, in between). So, how hard is that?? Now there’s home-baked bread in the house, and that’s just groovy, baby.

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