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.

The menu states that the restaurant offers “international comfort cuisine.” This includes familiar items like belgian waffles, beef burger salad, and shepard’s pie, all made with ingredients that conform to the paleo diet’s dictates. Its advocates claim that we should eat like our Paleolithic ancestors because their foods are better suited to our needs as a species. Like the hippies, they love organic vegetables and reject processed sugars but, unlike them, disallow grains. This is a major departure from the hippies, who adored grains and saw their dense complexity as a symbol of their worldview. Paleo also embraces meat (when grass fed), whereas hippies leaned toward vegetarianism. We had the beef burger salad, which naturally arrived without a bun, and shepherd’s pie, which was crunchy thanks to yucca root chips. I finished with the apple cobbler—surprisingly tasty given the absence of processed sugar and flour. While hippies ate lots of carbs, our meal was mostly fat and protein. The prices were moderate—about $25 each.

The Mission Heirloom Café is vigilant about food acquisition and preparation. This is another inheritance from the hippies, who avoided toxins and embedded their restaurants in networks of worker cooperatives and communes. The restaurant goes to great lengths to remove gluten, plastics, and pollutants from its food prep; this allows them to sell to consumers with intolerances (a wall displays the slogan “dietary requirements are culinary opportunities”). They also purchase—or “source”— their supplies self-consciously. Their website explains: “We source from small organic farms, ranches and fisheries; biodynamic farms, and wild–foragers who disclose every detail of their operations. We source as locally as possible with an eye towards the seasons. We serve only ethically raised local protein: grass-fed beef, pastured GMO-free pork, pastured lamb, omnivorous chicken, [and] wild-caught fish.”

My paleo meal was light and clean (though a little bland) and the environment was comfortable enough, but dining there made me feel implicated in the de-radicalization of Berkeley’s food culture. While the restaurant’s use of organic food necessarily evokes the hippies, and its identity rests on an acknowledgement that there is something sickening about the modern world, its approach to food is far more conservative than that of its hippie predecessors. Both embrace the idea that food is a relationship (not just a product), but for them this primarily means buying from niche suppliers and engaging its customers’ allergies. And while both agree that the food industry produces low-quality, unhealthy fare, the hippies used this to talk about social change, whereas the Mission Heirloom Café treats it as a business opportunity. Their use of economically ambiguous language—e.g., they do not buy their supplies but “source” them—indicates an uncertainty about how to place their work in the context of capitalism, although this doesn’t change the overall experience.

The Mission Heirloom Café sits on the wrong side of the battle between counter-cultural radicalism and tech-driven capitalism that has divided the Bay Area for years. This conflict unfolds in surprising settings—in fights over design choices, purchasing practices, and marketing rhetoric, etc. But the stakes are high. Though it can seem too strident at times, the hippie food movement expanded our approach to eating and, by implication, activism. It is important to hold on to the radicalism of its legacy.

~ Chuck Morse