How the Nation of Islam fought white supremacy with pie

This first appeared in Roar Magazine on September 22, 2021

Radicals have long used food to challenge the status quo. The Nation of Islam’s
navy bean pie was a weapon in its battle against white supremacy.

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by Chuck Morse

Apples fall from trees and berries grow on bushes, but food is not given by nature. It is a construct and, as such, conveys meaning. Although most foods affirm the status quo, there are also foods that register discontent with the dominant social order and hopes for an alternate future. They are part of the foodscape and remind us that dissidents have always contested the food system at the deepest level.

Consider the Nation of Islam’s navy bean pie. This dense, amber-colored dessert embodied a sweeping anti-racist narrative and was a weapon in the group’s battle against white supremacy, evoking the possibility of a cuisine designed to eradicate white terror.

Though diminished today, the Nation of Islam led one of the many challenges to white supremacy that took place in the United States during what some writers have called “the long sixties.” Whereas Martin Luther King Jr. implored white Americans to heed their consciences and join the “beloved community,” the Nation of Islam denounced white depravity and evoked the specter of Black rage. Malcolm X was its best-known member, and his searing indictment of white racism shook the American establishment and echoed globally, but there were tens of thousands of adherents spread out across American cities. The group’s distinctive culture as well as temples, schools, businesses and other institutions bound its devotees into a recognizable, coherent force.

Food was intensely important to the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad, its primary leader and ideologue, released a two-volume book on the topic, How to Eat to Live, and the organization also ran supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries, farms and other food-related businesses. This reflected its commitment to the body as a site upon which to contest white racism and enact Black liberation. While many civil rights advocates focused on changing legislation, the Nation of Islam was a separatist organization and its goals were more inward and corporal. In addition to food, it instructed its members in clothing and hair styles, exercise regimes and reproductive health practices. Its mandates rested on a foundation of explicitly patriarchal, heterosexist norms.

The Nation of Islam embraces a doctrine that bears little resemblance to the Islam practiced by most Muslims in the United States or elsewhere. The group identifies a millennia-long struggle between whites, who are the devil incarnate, and Blacks, who are the chosen ones. It expects this conflict to culminate in “the fall of America,” to cite a book by Elijah Muhammad, followed by Black freedom from white domination. Members used dietary and other body-centered practices to demonstrate their piety as they waited for the coming rupture and to experience moments of redemption in the here and now. For the Nation of Islam, Black empowerment was divine and it could take place on an individual, micro scale as well as on a collective, macro scale.

Elijah Muhammad outlined the culinary dimension of this process in How to Eat to Live, which contains articles that he first published in the group’s newspaper. He argues that Black people should avoid the conventions and foodstuffs of white cuisine, which reflect white people’s “innate wickedness,” and also those of popular Black foodways, often known as “soul food,” which he considered a relic of the “slave diet.” Doing so would allow them to nourish their bodies and affirm their spiritual nobility. He also offered precise instructions on foods to consume and foods to avoid, which ranged from the sensible to the bizarre: he urged members to prioritize fresh fruits and vegetables, to forego all bird except for baby pigeon, and to eat as much cream cheese as possible. Although he did not mention the pie, he repeatedly encouraged the consumption of navy beans.

The navy bean pie is the Nation of Islam’s sole contribution to American food. It is not clear when it first appeared, but it was central to the group’s transformative project. Members filled organizational coffers by selling it to motorists and passersby on streets in cities with active Nation of Islam chapters and at the sect’s restaurants, supermarkets and food stands. Pie sales also expanded the group’s ranks: there are accounts of people who joined the Nation of Islam after forging relationships with members while purchasing the pie. The pie’s ubiquity indicated that the sect had begun to reshape the fabric of urban life and to impact the more intimate realms of taste and diet.

The dish itself embodies the group’s anti-racist outlook in general and Elijah Muhammad’s culinary ideas in particular. The use of a bean filling distinguishes it from white America’s fruit pies, notably the apple pie, the culinary icon of American settler colonialism, and also from the sweet potato pie, a soul food classic. This demarcation unburdens the dessert of culinary legacies that undermine Black greatness. And those who eat it will encounter a tempered sweetness, thanks to use of beans and also the occasional use of brown sugar and whole wheat crusts, which affirms Black temperance and thus piety. Finally, beans evoke the role that grains (and grain storage) played in the rise of cities and thus civilization, tying the pie’s pleasures to narratives of world-building.

Although How to Eat To Live is eclectic and contradictory, persuasive assertions are implicit in the pie. As a dessert, it is principally an affirmation of pleasure. You consume it not to satisfy the demands of hunger, nutrition, or some other necessity, but because it is enjoyable to do so, as an end in its own right. Culinary pleasure, like all pleasure, must be free and uncoerced — it cannot be compelled. Insofar as the Nation of Islam believed that white coercion defines the present epoch, this moment of delight is necessarily an instance of respite from white tyranny. The critique of white food and popular Black foodways written into the pie sets the stage for this embodied experience of liberation, which is literally divine.

And this points toward compelling culinary prospects. If the pie allows for an escape from white oppression, no matter how fleeting, other foods presumably do so as well, and this suggests the possibility of an entire cuisine organized against white supremacy, with its own foods, flavors, textures, cooking practices and eating conventions. How to Eat To Live was too immersed in Nation of Islam maxims to do more than gesture in this direction, but the discourse about pleasure inscribed in the pie provides a more sustainable foundation. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, white radicals produced what Warren Belasco called a “counter-cuisine” in his book on the topic, Appetite for Change. They arrayed their foods against “the system” broadly, whereas the pie signals a cuisine built around opposition to white supremacy specifically.

Communist opponents of white supremacy have been unable to explore this possibility. They have typically regarded culinary matters with indifference and, instead, focused on workplace conflicts and charting a path to power. They have also generally not acknowledged the potential for pre-revolutionary moments of emancipation. For them, cuisine would be important after the revolution; until then, the task is to make it. Even the Black Panther Party’s “Free Breakfast Program,” one of the best-known attempts to link food, Black liberation and communism, treated food as a means to an end. That is, when the Panthers fed poor, Black children, their goal was to demonstrate government neglect and build party support, not to comment on food as such.

Nowadays, it is difficult to find the pie. The Nation of Islam appears to be shrinking and the group’s investment in reactionary, particularly anti-Semitic ideas has justly made it an object of scorn for many. And we have learned things about white supremacy that weaken some of the pie’s premises. When Elijah Muhammad explicated his culinary views, it seemed necessary to re-invent Black food from scratch. As he saw it, slavery had ruptured any connection that African Americans had to their African past and, with it, the threads of a possible counter-tradition in food. History was a void, as signified by the X in Malcolm X’s name, and thus hopes for an alternate future had to be grounded in otherworldly terms. But, in the intervening decades, historians and other scholars have revealed that enslaved Africans often sustained aspects of their own culture, including their culinary culture, despite their captivity. Their legacy can and should be part of any contemporary attempt to create foods that defy white supremacy.

In 1862, Ludwig Feuerbach affirmed a materialist theory of history when he wrote that “man is what he eats.” Of course, Feuerbach was correct, but we also construct what we eat and sometimes our constructs express oppositional convictions. That is true of the Nation of Islam’s navy bean pie. Though embedded in the group’s theology and tied to some of its retrograde impulses, the dish was a tool of mobilization, embodied anti-racist narratives, and conjured expansive culinary possibilities. Its time has passed, but it is a record of contest that demonstrates that the foodscape is richer and more conflicted than we often suppose.

Luna Sol Café: El pasado—y tal vez el futuro—de los restaurantes radicales de Los Ángeles

(Este artículo fue publicado originalmente
en L.A. Taco el 28 de Junio de 2017)

Los orígenes de la comida radical en Los Ángeles

Cuando Jonathan Gold calificó a LocoL como el “restaurante del año” en el periódico Los Angeles Times, lo hizo subrayando su compromiso de servir a los vecinos del barrio de Watts, donde se encuentra ubicado. LocoL no sólo ofrece platos baratos y saludables, sino que además brinda oportunidades de trabajo en un medio tan moderno y multicultural como lo es la Ciudad de Los Ángeles. En su reseña, Gold elogió a Daniel Patterson y al héroe local Roy Choi, dos superestrellas culinarios y fundadores del restaurante, por sus fines sociales y su dedicación por marcar una diferencia.

Lo que no mencionó Gold fue que Los Ángeles cuenta con una larga y fascinante historia de restaurantes con un compromiso social, y que algunos son más radicales que otros. Pensemos, por ejemplo, en el Luna Sol Café, que funcionó cerca de MacArthur Park desde 1996 hasta 2003. El Luna Sol Café ofrecía platos económicos y saludables y tenía raíces muy arraigadas en las redes multiculturales y contraculturales de su tiempo. Fue, básicamente, una cooperativa en la cual los trabajadores eran los dueños del negocio y las responsabilidades y los privilegios eran compartidos de manera horizontal e igualitaria. Este fue el único restaurante de este tipo en L.A. y uno de los pocos en la historia del Estado de California.

De una ocupación a un restaurante propiamente dicho

Luna Sol apareció en un momento en que la credibilidad del orden establecido había caído a un nuevo récord y muchos consideraban que era necesario reconstruir la sociedad desde abajo. Las masas negras y latinas pusieron al mundo patas para arriba durante la rebelión de 1992, imponiéndose por la fuerza en el debate, y muchos se miraron con frustración cuando los políticos respondieron con promesas, planes, y programas vacíos. Existía una batalla continua entre la vieja guardia y las fuerzas de cambio revitalizadas. Por ejemplo, el L.A. Conservation Corps tenía un programa de trabajo orientado a los jóvenes, pero los trataba como ganado. En respuesta, los jóvenes ocuparon el edificio del programa y lo transformaron en un centro activista bajo el nombre de Peace and Justice Center.

Algunos de los fundadores del Luna Sol Café participaron en la ocupación. Cuando esta finalizó en 1996, los participantes se reorganizaron de inmediato: crearon una casa colectiva en el barrio de West Adams en la “Casa Marvin Gaye”—donde Gaye había sido asesinado por su padre en 1984—y alquilaron una tienda con una estufa deteriorada y un refrigerador viejo en 2501 West 6th St., que pronto se convertiría en el Luna Sol Café. El equipo original sabía que quería construir un espacio comunitario y hacer algo relacionado con la comida, pero jamás imaginaron la envergadura del experimento que estaban a punto de emprender. “Nunca pensamos que administraríamos un restaurante propiamente dicho”, me confesó recientemente Tito López, uno de los integrantes originales del grupo.

Un colectivo de trabajadores desde el inicio, el Luna Sol Café no tenía jefes ni gerentes pero sí una estructura flexible que respondía a niveles de participación. Había integrantes principales, que tomaban las decisiones importantes, y a menudo trabajaban entre cincuenta y sesenta horas semanales. Recibían un salario mensual de $800, que era básicamente nada. “Sin embargo, supimos arreglarnos”, dijo López. También había empleados que recibían un salario por hora y que, si lo deseaban, podían convertirse en integrantes principales del colectivo. Por último, había una red de voluntarios muy dinámica y respetada. En su mejor momento, el colectivo tuvo seis integrantes principales, ocho empleados, y dos o tres voluntarios, y estaba conformado por negros, latinos, asiáticos y blancos. La mayoría eran adolescentes o de veinte y pico de años. En 1997, el café adoptó el nuevo nombre de Luna Tierra Sol.

Comida, comunidad y gentrificación

El menú ofrecía una selección completa de opciones de desayuno, almuerzo y cena, y también tenía una “declaración de misión” en la cual se detallaba que sus platos formaban parte de un esfuerzo por fomentar un sentido de comunidad. El estilo de la comida era principalmente mexicana, a pesar de que el Luna Sol nunca fue un restaurante específicamente mexicano, y no servía carne—era uno de los pocos restaurantes vegetarianos en L.A. por ese entonces. Los nombres de los platos resaltaban el espíritu radical del proyecto. Por ejemplo, estaba la Xipotle Bowl, que era muy preferida—la sustitución de la x por la ch en “chipotle” fue una práctica surgida del movimiento Chicano, a través de la cual se exaltaban las raíces aztecas de los mexicoamericanos y la pérdida de identidad como consecuencia de la colonización (à la Malcolm X). También había una referencia al punk con las muy queridas papas fritas Rude Girl, variante de las Chili Fries que venían acompañadas de salsa de tomate casera y queso, y un guiño a la contracultura con el plato Chimi Hendrix—tofu a la parrilla con chipotle dentro de una tortilla gigante rellena de lechuga y queso. El hip hop, por su parte, estaba presente en el Freestyle Wrap. El Luna Sol abría desde las 7 de la mañana hasta las 10 de la noche todos los días, y durante un tiempo logró obtener importantes ingresos cuando comenzó a ofrecer un servicio de banquetes a organizaciones sin fines de lucro dos o tres veces al mes.

Repleto de una mezcolanza de muebles y con las paredes pintadas de colores brillantes, el Luna Sol era un punto de confluencia en la gran comunidad amorfa activista de la ciudad. Issys Amaya, quien apenas tenía quince años cuando se involucró en el proyecto, me comentó que el Luna Sol era “un espacio seguro y confortable para organizarse, crear y establecer contactos”. Era muy común que la gente se reuniera allí para relajarse después de una protesta o para planear nuevas manifestaciones, y se convirtió en un destino clave para los activistas que venían de otras ciudades y países. El restaurante tenía noches de micrófono abierto, exposiciones de arte, presentaciones de música y baile, y hasta clases de yoga. La mayoría de los artistas eran aficionados y entusiastas, pero también se presentaron artistas de renombre como Manu Chao, Dilated Peoples, Saul Williams, y Fredo Ortiz, el antiguo baterista de los Beastie Boys.

Las cosas alcanzaron su punto álgido en 2000, cuando el Partido Demócrata celebró su convención nacional en Los Ángeles. Las protestas constantes y el dinamismo de la contracultura artística y musical pusieron en evidencia la fragilidad del control de las autoridades de la ciudad. Obi Iwuoma, otro de los fundadores, me dijo que “fue una época muy tensa” y que muchas personas que se consideraban apolíticas “fueron arrastradas hacia la corriente”. El Luna Sol prosperó a pesar de la tensión—a tal punto que se debatió la posibilidad de abrir otro local. Pero la represión que siguió a los ataques del 11 de septiembre de 2001 lo cambió todo. Los activistas se dispersaron y los ingresos provenientes del servicio de banquetes desaparecieron. Además, debido al rápido crecimiento de Internet, se le restó importancia a los espacios comunitarios. La gentrificación también jugó un papel importante—el edificio que Luna Sol Café ocupaba fue vendido y los nuevos propietarios no ofrecieron un contrato de alquiler asequible, algo muy común para las personas de color aquí en Los Ángeles.

La última cena. . . ¿y la próxima?

Luna Sol Café sirvió su último plato en 2003, cerrando así un capítulo importante en la historia local de proyectos de comida con compromiso social. Como cooperativa, el Luna Sol eliminó la relación de explotación entre jefes y trabajadores—un pilar del capitalismo—y, en ese sentido, declaró que la buena comida y el capitalismo no se mezclan. LocoL, en cambio, prioriza restablecer la conexión entre las personas oprimidas y el sistema capitalista al vender productos de alta calidad y ofrecer una experiencia laboral. Ambos restaurantes tienen (o tuvieron) un compromiso social, pero uno fue anti-capitalista y el otro trabaja dentro del sistema.

¿Cuál es la relación entre los dos proyectos? Se podría decir que el radicalismo del Luna Sol reflejó el entusiasmo juvenil de sus participantes, algo que LocoL corrige con su aceptación más “realista” del capitalismo. El fracaso del Luna Sol parece sustentar la idea de que el restaurante era demasiado idealista y político para poder sobrevivir en una ciudad que típicamente se opone al cambio radical. Por otro lado, LocoL está perdiendo dinero en Watts, y su sucursal en Oakland acaba de cerrar, lo que significa que los fundadores de LocoL se enfrentan a realidades similares, a pesar de haber respetado las reglas del juego. Tal vez sea ingenuo pensar que uno puede utilizar las herramientas capitalistas para ofrecer comida de calidad a los desfavorecidos y excluidos; quizás el Luna Sol pueda enseñarles mucho más a las próximas generaciones de restaurateurs radicales.

Como mínimo, estas cuestiones demuestran que la historia de los restaurantes en L.A. es más complicada de lo que reconocemos normalmente—un hecho que debemos tener presente cuando pensamos en las posibilidades del futuro. Luna Tierra Sol y LocoL dejan de manifiesto que hay hambre por modelos nuevos, modos nuevos, y algo diferente. ¿Cuál será la próxima versión radical del restaurant de Los Ángeles?

~ Chuck Morse

(Traducción al Español: Chuck Morse)

Mixed Feelings at El Cholo, L.A.’s original ‘Spanish Café’

[This piece first appeared in LA Taco on December 19, 2017]

I indulge in a big restaurant meal every Saturday. Basically, I go full hulk — I eat whatever I want — and then immediately return to counting calories for the rest of the week. This is how I fight the war against dadbod while enjoying some delicious meals and learning a bit about LA. Although I’m a second-generation Angeleno — my late father grew up in Pasadena during the World War II era — I was born and raised on the East Coast and have only lived here since April, so there is a lot to explore.

Finding a viable eating strategy is important to me because I’m really interested in food, particularly in restaurants and how they comment on social issues. For instance, I’m fascinated by how LA’s Mexican restaurants address the subordinate position that people of Mexican descent occupy in LA and the fact that the city was part of Mexico before the US took it over in 1848 — in other words, how they deal with exploitation and colonialism. The new, foodie restaurants tend to be quite self-aware, but they can get a little overwrought. Last week I was in the mood for something straightforward, so I decided to give El Cholo on Western Avenue in Koreatown a try. Founded in the 1920s, Bill Esparza describes it as an LA “institution.”

El Cholo markets itself as “historic” but really sells nostalgia for a time when the subordination of Mexican-Americans seemed more natural — that is, before the 1960s, when Civil Rights and anti-imperialist activists launched their movements against American racism and colonialism. As a “Spanish cafe,” its name points to a time when Mexican food was sold as Spanish to placate the white supremacist anxieties about “the Mexican.” Its amber-hued interior brings to mind the haciendas of the old California Missions or, more exactly, a period when restaurants nonchalantly used such décor without acknowledging the missions’ racist colonial nature. Continue reading

The Luna Sol Café: The Past, and maybe Future, of LA’s Radical Restaurants

[This piece first appeared in LA Taco on June 28, 2017 ]

The origins of radical food in Los Angeles
When Jonathan Gold named Locol the LA Times “restaurant of the year,” he emphasized its commitment to serving the people of Watts, where it is located. It offers them inexpensive-but-healthy food as well as job opportunities in an environment that is as hip and multicultural as Los Angeles itself. Gold lauded Daniel Patterson and local hero Roy Choi, the two culinary luminaries who started the restaurant, for their sense of social purpose and commitment to changing the landscape.

What Gold did not say is that Los Angeles has a long and fascinating history of socially engaged eateries and that some of them are far more radical than Locol. Consider the Luna Sol Café, which operated near MacArthur Park from 1996 to 2003. It provided low-cost, nutritious fare and had deep roots in the multi-ethnic, underground scene of its time, but, crucially, it was a worker-owned cooperative, in which responsibilities and privileges were shared in a horizontal, egalitarian way. It is the only restaurant of this type that LA has known and one of very few in California’s history.

From Occupation to Full-Blown Restaurant
Luna Sol emerged at a moment when the credibility of the city’s establishment had reached new lows, and many felt that it was necessary to rebuild society from the ground up. Everyone had seen LA’s Black and Brown masses turn the world upside down during the 1992 rebellion, forcing themselves into the discussion, and many had watched with frustration as politicians responded to this with bogus promises, plans, and programs. There was sort of a running battle between the old guard and the newly energized forces of change. For example, the LA Conservation Corps ran a youth-oriented jobs program that treated the kids like cattle; in response, the youth seized the program’s building in 1995 and transformed it into an activist hub known as the Peace and Justice Center. Continue reading

Post-Industrial Dessert in the Age of Instagram at Little Damage in Downtown L.A.

[This piece first appeared in LA Taco on May 2, 2017]

When Little Damage Ice Cream opened in downtown recently, I imagined it as another boutiquey ice cream shop in a city that is already full of them, albeit one that generated more media attention than others thanks to a buzzworthy flavor of soft serve that they sell: charcoal almond. However, after visiting the store, I realized that there is a lot more going on there. It is a very cerebral place that is compelling not only for what it puts into our stomachs but also for what it puts in our minds: its ability to comment on  our evolving relationship to food in these digital, social-media-heavy times.

When customers first enter the brightly lit shop, they face a marquee that presents them with a choice of just four ice cream flavors. These apparently change over time, but of course I arrived knowing that I wanted the charcoal almond, which has made a splash on social media. This dark grey swirl came piled into an equally dark grey cone, also made with charcoal. I requested a white coconut flake topping, which gave the dessert a two-tone aesthetic—goth but with some ska thrown in.

This peculiar flavor actually has a point to make: it criticizes the old industrial attitude to the world that held sway throughout the twentieth century and affirms the new, information-based economy. Consider the ingredients. Charcoal evokes all the grit and grime of heavy industry. To make a food out of it, particularly a dessert, is a way of showing that the remnants of the old industrial landscape can be reimagined and even made into sources of pleasure. We see something similar with other projects that “repurpose” the built environment: food trucks that turn vehicles into restaurants, fancy lofts built out of old factories, and even some fitness regimes (like parkour). All of these things validate our ability to reimagine the physical world and highlight the industrial outlook’s rigidity, which was too narrow minded to grasp its full potential. The presence of almonds is an important counterpoint: if charcoal conjures up twentieth century industrialism, which wanted to remake everything but was inflexible, these little gems, which do not need cooking to be edible, remind us that sometimes we don’t need to do anything to find rewards in the world. The idea is that we need to be creative but also sensitive. These are resonant points in downtown, which is increasingly a hub for high tech firms that make billions in the post-industrial, information-based economy.

As I bit into the ice cream, I first noticed that it was not saturated with sugar like most American brands—it was sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. This made it much more palatable. In fact, I could have had two servings without feeling sick, which is not something that I can say about Ben and Jerry’s or Häagen-Dazs. It was also less granular in texture as a result, even for soft-serve. It reminded me of machine-dispensed frozen yogurt, although it was more dense, which likely reflected the use of high-quality ingredients (and that it wasn’t filled with air). The charcoal was mostly tasteless other than a hint of alkaline; this put the faint, buttery clarity of the almond in relief. This combination definitely worked well. More than just a vehicle for sugar delivery, and more than just strange, it was good, interesting ice cream.

However, something else captured my attention: everyone was snapping photos of their ice cream, of themselves, and of themselves with their ice cream, which they were clearly uploading or would soon upload to Instagram or some other site. This was happening inside and immediately outside of the store. Most were using their phones, except for one woman, who came armed with a huge DSLR camera, which she piloted around the establishment. The shop even had a photo booth of its own, just in case you had come unprepared. I admit that I smirked when I became aware of all of these documentarians, until I realized that I was also photographing my ice cream and thinking about posting the pictures online. I hesitated before snapping a picture of the counter area—I feared that would feel invasive to the woman working there—but she seemed indifferent to it all. Presumably she had accepted that this digital exposure is part of her job like it is, for example, for the women working booths at tech trade shows.

This was so pervasive that it made me wonder about Little Danger itself: is it really an ice cream shop or actually in the business of selling edible props that people use to enhance their social media profiles? And what does this say about the impact of social media on food generally? If we typically ask whether a food is healthy or tastes good, perhaps we will now start taking into account its ability to help us get new Twitter and Instagram followers. Do we need to rebuild the food pyramid with social media in mind? It appears that food is starting to please us and nourish us in new, essentially digital ways.

Pondering these admittedly abstract questions changed my feelings about all the photographing going on. In the context of an increasingly digitalized, post-industrial economy, maybe this was not as indulgent as I first thought. If data and ideas—not things—drive the economy now, then it makes sense that we would frantically generate data for social media companies and try to find clever ways to position ourselves in the digital world. Perhaps we were all working at Little Damage or at least preparing to work. Certainly the ice cream flavor pointed to the new economic context and the shop itself is highly attuned to today’s links between information technology and food.

I admit that I wanted to like-but-not-like Little Damage. I knew that the ice cream would be unusual and I assumed that I would enjoy it, but I expected to leave feeling annoyed by the shop’s boutiquey quality. That would be a comfortable posture for me: sure, I might be a little fatter for the experience, but I wouldn’t feel implicated in its quaint, preciousness, which seems to be spreading all over LA. Instead I felt engaged and drawn into its commentary on industrialism and illustration of our changing approach to food. And that is the genius of this genuinely challenging soft-serve ice cream shop.

~ Chuck Morse

Eating at The Perennial: Climate Change and Capitalism

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

– – –

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.

*  *  *

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