Eating at The Perennial: Climate Change and Capitalism

This piece first appeared on CounterPunch on March 25, 2016.

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Food critics raved about The Perennial when it opened in San Francisco in January. The SF Eater called it a “palace of modern sustainability;” the Chronicle described it as the “restaurant of the future.” Even Wired Magazine sang its praises. They all celebrated its commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, which sits at the center of its identity and impacts everything that it does, from food prep, to food acquisition, to interior design. Considering that we are facing an epochal climate crisis, and that the city is sinking into the ocean, it makes an important and timely statement.

What statement does it make exactly? Curious to check this out, I had a meal there with a friend last week and discovered that its message is significantly more complicated than food writers suggested. It is both more laudable and more objectionable than they indicated.

First, though, it is in the avant-garde of sustainability. While it composts food waste, recycles linens, and distributes water sparingly, this is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. For instance, it created a closed-loop permaculture system with its “aquaponic” greenhouse in West Oakland: the restaurant composts food scraps, which it feeds to the sturgeon and carp in the warehouse; the fish help to nourish the vegetables and lettuce growing there; and then the fish and plants become restaurant food and scraps once again. They have also integrated kernza grains into their menu. Developed by the Land Institute in Kansas, this unique grain grows year-round (unlike most of the grains we eat) and its deep-reaching roots can reduce soil-erosion and even take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Finally, they buy their meat from Marin’s Stemple Creek Ranch, which embraces what is known as “carbon farming”—an approach to harvesting livestock that mitigates climate change. These are their most novel interventions, which they detail on their website, but there are others as well.

Eating at The Perennial is remarkable because little on the surface reveals how different it is from any other high-end eatery. Sitting in a cavernous hall in San Francisco’s mid-Market area, its low-lights and vaulted ceilings evoke a loungy chic typical of expensive restaurants worldwide. It was already busy when we arrived at 6:00 PM and most of the clientele looked like extras from America’s Top Model. The host delivered us to the long wooden “chef’s table,” which sits in front of their well-lit kitchen. We watched Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, two of the owner-chefs, do their magic while waiting for our food (it was like being on the set of a cooking show). But there was no literature rack by the door, no posters promoting agricultural collectives in Nicaragua; Blondie not Manu Chao played over the speakers. Although the wait staff discreetly handed us a few postcards describing their environmental methods—one with the menu and another with the bill—that was it. Continue reading

Book Review: Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden

This first appeared on the Civil Eats blog on November 2, 2011.

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The notion that politics only takes place in the voting booth or halls of state basically evaporated in the 1960s. We now know that political acts occur in a range of settings: in our neighborhoods, bedrooms, kitchens, and, yes, even in our gardens.

The use of gardens as a means of social engagement and a forum in which to articulate oppositional ideas is the subject of George McKay’s Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism, and Rebellion in the Garden. In the work, he chronicles the history of politicized gardens and documents some of the various ways that activists have utilized them to express their views. He hopes that his book will provide “a small corrective to the parochial or suburban or landed versions of garden understanding [by tracing] the strands of idealism, rebellion, political action and social criticism in the garden historically and presently.” His book leaves no doubt that radical gardens have, as he puts it, a “rich and challenging tradition, a significance, as well as a trajectory of energy and import that makes them matter for our future.” Continue reading

The Mission Heirloom Café: Hippies, Cavemen, and Capitalism

IMG_0334Berkeley’s food culture is notoriously overwrought and politicized, but some of this is an echo of the hippie food movements that shook the city in the 1960s. The hippies transformed how we eat when they advocated for a diet of natural foods and an activist approach to cuisine. For them, eating was a relational activity and could be a tool for social change. They forged what historians now call a “counter-cuisine.”

Their legacy made last year’s opening of the Mission Heirloom Café particularly interesting to me. As the area’s only “paleo” restaurant, it relies on the hippie food outlook but breaks with it in pivotal ways. I went to check it out last week with a friend.

The hippie food movement still lives in Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto.” As we walked toward the restaurant, we first passed Alice Walker’s luminous Chez Panisse. Though its prices now put it beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, it pioneered the application of countercultural values to food, with an emphasis on seasonal cooking and local, organic ingredients. We then navigated the crowds waiting for pizza outside of the Cheese Board Collective, a worker-owned business in its forty-fifth year.

The tone changed when we reached the Mission Heirloom Café. Its façade is a wall of plate glass windows framed by steel and painted stucco. The entrance leads you to the main counter, where there is more glass, and then to the central eating area in the back patio. Organized around a long table set underneath an enormous steel and glass pergola, its landscaping has a minimalist, quasi-Asian feel. I noted clubby world music pulsing in the background as I browsed paleo-friendly books and packaged goods for sale throughout the establishment. I felt like I could have been in an Apple Store, although there were gestures to offset the chilly corporate aesthetic. The wait staff greeted us with big smiles, as if we were friends, and old wooden crates lay around the business, suggesting that we had entered a warehouse or some site in which commodities magically travel from “farm to table” (sidestepping the capitalist market). Mexican-style wool blankets rested on the wire chairs—lacking price tags, we could borrow these should we need them. An entire wall had been made into a chalk board and bore traces of half-erased scribbles—there was no chalk, but this conveyed a spirt of informality and flexibility. Continue reading

Gentrification, colonialism, and bugs? The Calavera restaurant in Oakland

Photo credit: Calavera

It was a big deal when Calavera opened last August. It is Oakland’s only high-end Mexican restaurant and one of the few in the region to specialize in Oaxacan cuisine, which is world famous for its complexity and pre-Hispanic elements.

Also, as an anchor tenant of The Hive, Signature Development’s new live-work complex in “Uptown,” its launch was a vote of confidence in the gentrification of the area—signaling that people with money expect it to remain a place for people with money. Even more interestingly, the restaurant engages major traumas in the city’s history: although it is often considered a Black city, its lands were once Mexican and Indigenous before that. To serve Oaxacan food in Oakland is to evoke these chapters in its past as well as the brutal colonization that closed them.

I had these issues in mind when a friend and I visited Calavera last Saturday. How did it navigate them? Did it do so while tasting good?

The Scene
The restaurant was nearly full when we arrived at 6:00 PM. The hostess whisked us to our table and our waitress greeted us immediately thereafter. Both had the hip, casual-cool style typical of Bay Area food service workers, who are expected to perform physically demanding labor and also to be cosmopolitan. The staff looked mostly white to me; the bus boys being the only obvious Latin Americans among them. The clientele seemed like well-paid professionals, largely but not exclusively white. I did not hear any Spanish spoken. Continue reading