One day I ate a Pop-Tart outside Chez Panisse. Wracked with guilt, I hid the wrapped toaster pastry in my coat sleeve and nibbled as inconspicuously as I could, all the while praying that Alice Waters wouldn’t look out her window to see me blaspheme in the Gourmet Ghetto.
Thirty years earlier, on that very street, the hippie soldiers of Berkeley’s food revolution changed the way a nation thought about food. Their political ideals provoked allegiance to pure, seasonal flavors and chanted in peaceful protest from every inspired meal. Those of us too young to remember that taste revolution undoubtedly take its delicious consequences for granted. But the food fighters did leave us a legacy of their activist mentality: We are still keenly aware that what we choose to eat has consequences beyond our stomachs.
Since before organic was something to purchase, before Gandhi promoted vegetarianism and Marie Antoinette ate cake, back to when Eve sank her pearly whites into that fateful apple, food has been one of our most powerful symbolic tools. Because the need to eat is one of the few things shared by all humans, everywhere, the way we eat is what distinguishes us from one another. Food choices can set us apart from or express our affiliation with a culture, a region, a religion, a political agenda. In Berkeley in the 1970s, those choices drove a revolution.
Today in the East Bay, we are faced with more food choices than ever before. A trip to the market alone demands an extensive food vocabulary. Even with that, the selection may be baffling. Nevertheless, or maybe as a result, what we eventually place in our baskets makes a statement about our personal values. When I choose an organic peach over a conventionally-grown one, I may be expressing my concern for the earth or the health of farm workers. I may also be trying to give the impression of concern, or healthiness, or simply making a decision that I assume is the right one, without actually knowing what organic means. When I choose an organic peach over a locally-grown one, I face an entirely different set of ethical, environmental, political, culinary issues. That peach is never simply a peach because, as the revolutionaries understood, food carries meaning beyond its chemical makeup.
I mused upon this idea as I walked home that day, dusting crumbs from my lips as a criminal might scrub away incriminating fingerprints. The problem, I thought, is that while buying or eating particular foods might demonstrate our support for certain causes, we don’t always eat to support a cause. Sometimes we eat because of cravings or out of nostalgia for a taste memory. Most of the time, we eat what we can afford. So even though I chose that Pop-Tart because it was cheap, and I was hungry, and ultimately because I loved its unassuming, gooey sugariness, I felt as though the shiny silver wrapper and immaculately rectangular morsel in my hand were broadcasting to the world some anti-fresh, local, seasonal opinion that was not my own.
I believe in eating locally, in supporting family farms and production that sustains and replenishes the earth. Most of all, I believe in the flavor of the freshest, ripest foods. But I also like Pop-Tarts and brand name chunky peanut butter. Sometimes I buy mangoes off-season and enjoy every juicy, sinful bite. I can’t always afford to buy organic or eat in restaurants that share my values. The hardest part of being a post-revolutionary foodie may be figuring out how to reconcile my principles with my food whims at a time when we have more food choices and more freedom to choose what to eat than ever before.
Walking along the streets of Berkeley, Pop-Tart in belly, I felt dissatisfied and guilty – and it had nothing to do with the empty calories. I was feeling what the revolutionaries had thirty years ago: that food as a powerful symbol can affect emotions and therefore affect change. The difference this time around was that I didn’t want to produce change. I didn’t want to make a statement. I only wanted to taste. But maybe it’s too late. Maybe taste is my statement. And with this breakfast manifesto, the change has already begun.