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Subtracting the Additives : APPETITE FOR CHANGE : How the Counterculture Took On the Food Industry, 1966-1988 by Warren J. Belasco (Pantheon: $24.95; 311 pp.; 0-394-54399-8)

February 25, 1990|Charles Bowden | Bowden's most recent book is "Red Line."

Millions of us now eat meat loaf about as frequently as our struggling parents ever dined on a lobster. We sense that we've been through some kind of diet revolution.

A quarter-century ago, a few hip folks toyed with brown rice in their communes. Now we are increasingly a nation of food-conscious gluttons stuffing ourselves with Stouffer's Lean Cuisine Pork and Beef Cannelloni With Mornay Sauce, a mod-treat that requires 12 lines of tiny type to list its largely unintelligible ingredients.

Warren J. Belasco, an American studies academic at the University of Maryland, tracks how the counterculture created new appetites that wound up as bastardized items in the offerings of the giant food processors. Much like '60s rock 'n' roll, something that began as an attack on the culture ended up as part of big business.

Belasco, a bona fide baby-boomer who lived and fought through the food wars, has produced a lively text that is more a commentary on than a history of this shift in our palates--away from the lust for red meat after World War II (127.1 pounds per person in 1930; 160 pounds in 1970) and into a mushy wilderness of quiche. The story begins with burnout of radicals in the late '60s and the move into food, the country life and ecology and away from hard-left politics. A quote from the Digger Papers, the product of an anarchic group that gave away free food and flourished briefly in the Bay Area, helps bring it all flooding back:

"Industrialism was a battle with 19th-Century ecology to win breakfast at the cost of smog and insanity. Wars against ecology are suicidal. The U.S. standard of living is a bourgeois baby blanket for executives who scream in their sleep. No Pleistocene swamp could match the pestilential horror of modern sewage. No children of White Western Progress will escape the cries of people forced to haul their raw materials."

I hear you, Brothers and Sisters.

The book falls into three parts. First, there is the making of a countercuisine that explains why food suddenly was politicized by the Movement, that sketches the early pioneers of eating lower on the food chain like Frances Moore Lappe, Crescent Dragonwagon, True Light Beaver, alice bay laurel and others, and visits the early quarrels over plastic versus natural, heavy versus light, plus, of course, the endless arguments about just what organic really means.

Belasco also outlines the rise of hip food co-ops, the glut of New Age cookbooks and the first tinglings of hip capitalism from Erewhon, Celestial Seasonings and others. Then, in good Hegelian fashion, comes the anti-thesis, the rage of the straight-food industry at any attack on additives (in 1955, 400 million pounds of additives went into food; by 1970, 1.06 billion, or about five pounds per capita), the attack by agribusiness against organic agriculture (Secretary Earl Butz's famous comment: "Without the modern input of chemicals, of pesticides, of antibiotics, we simply could not do the job. Before we go back to organic agriculture in this country, somebody must decide which 50 million Americans we are going to let starve or go hungry").

Then there is the foot-dragging by the federal government over testing chemicals (the EPA by the late '70s could test only 25 chemicals a year of the 600 additives in the 50,000 pesticides approved before 1972), even as the circulation of Organic Gardening and Farming grew 40% in 1970 to 700,000.

In Part Three, we face the persistent fact of American culture: its ability to adjust. Just as the two dominant political parties have shown a genius for absorbing dissent from the Populist revolt through Jesse Jackson, so big business cannot resist a market, even one it personally loathes: Enter mass-produced, boxed granola, and supermarkets where every item seems to announce it is natural or low in cholesterol or teeming with oat bran; enter hip-looking restaurants where hand-lettered menus tout huge omelets with a spring of alfalfa sprouts nested against them. Meanwhile, in our larger cities, a few '60s food co-ops continue on with their bins, weird inventories and customers made up of aging freaks.

The book, while diligently researched (48 pages of footnotes), somehow feels light at times. It is constructed from written materials, and the constant splash of quotations leaves one craving more weight. One hungers for more encounters with the people dealing with the new food ideas--whether they be Lappe with her influential "Diet for a Small Planet," the stubborn tribe of organic gardeners exemplified by the Rodale Press or the marketing gods of the food business with their wonderful displays of moxie in labeling as "health foods" breakfast cereals that are warehouses of sugar.

At times, I craved a reporter more than a historian. On the scholarly front, I would have liked a bit more on early food crusaders like Sylvester Graham, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Mormons, John Harvey Kellogg and C. W. Post.

The idea that food is a political tool is a recurring inspiration in our culture. But why quarrel with a good start? Belasco has produced an engaging account of the battle for reforming our stomachs (into which we stuff 1,400 pounds of food a year). Anyone who wonders how we got to this dubious array of "natural" food in our supermarkets might start their education with this book.

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