Maria McGrath. Food for Dissent: Natural Foods and the Consumer Counterculture since the 1960s. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019. 256 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62534-421-2; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-422-9.
Reviewed by Clare Gordon Bettencourt (University of California, Irvine) Published on H-Environment (February, 2020) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (University of Idaho)
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54400
In 2015, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) solicited public comments on how to define the term “natural” as it pertained to food. During the commenting period, the FDA received 7,690 remarks. The sentiments ranged from concerns about genetically modified ingredients and food processing to health claims, and many comments contained a surprising number of profanities. What this exercise made abundantly clear is that natural foods are more than just a broad category of products; to some they have become an all-encompassing ideology.
Maria McGrath’s Food for Dissent: Natural Foods and the Consumer Counterculture since the 1960s traces the history of what she refers to as the natural foods movement and considers whether it is a movement of consumers or political activists. Within the umbrella of the movement, McGrath includes health food, organic food, local food, whole food, “real” food, and the food revolution, and she argues that adherents shared a discomfort with the post-World War II industrial food system. McGrath spatially identifies the natural foods movement beyond traditional locations like Manhattan’s East Village or San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to encompass small, private, domestic acts as the embodiment of the countercultural food ethos. McGrath contends that despite a distrust of broader food systems, the natural foods movement favored market- and consumer-based solutions, as opposed to political activism, by starting businesses like co-ops and emphasizing the importance of choices made by shoppers. Overall McGrath argues that the natural foods movement’s adherence to the market reflects the privilege of the mostly white, middle-class participants who ultimately served the neoliberal turn and suggests that had these people engaged in political activism, greater change could have been effected.
McGrath structures her study around several threads that she contends were central in creating the natural foods movement: food co-ops, natural foods cookbooks, the Rodale Press, Dr. Andrew Weil, and natural foods conservatism. Food co-ops of the 1970s, or “new wave co-ops,” were central to cultivating the countercultural nutritional mindset and creating an alternative marketplace, according to McGrath. McGrath’s particularly effective study of vegetarian cookbooks reveals the different ways that vegetarianism and home cookery provided an outlet for anxious counterculturalists. Laurel’s Kitchen (1976) emphasized home cooking, baking, and canning as a form of social maternal uplift, while the Bloodroot Restaurant and Collective used their recipes to practice feminist and lesbian activism. The Tassajara Bread Book (1970) framed baking as a Buddhist ritual, and “countercultural connoisseurs” like the Moosewood Cookbook (1974) and the Vegetarian Epicure (1972) favored gastronomy in a way that foreshadowed the twenty-first-century farm-to-table movement. In her third chapter, McGrath outlines how Rodale Press linked the organic lifestyle to the natural foods movement by creating a publication empire focused on preventative wellness. She expands on the theme of health in her chapter on Weil, the best-known “alternative health personality,” who she argues infused countercultural idealism into the 1990s health landscape. Finally, chapter 5 links the “back to the land” and traditionalist ideas of the natural foods movement to the emergence of the “back to the Bible” movement and the counterculture’s distrust of the state to the growth of libertarianism in the 1980s.
McGrath’s case studies successfully elucidate the primacy of consumption in the natural foods movement. In the first two chapters, the historical actors opening co-ops and writing vegetarian cookbooks seemed to genuinely believe that small personal choices could provoke social change. Additionally, these two chapters masterfully outline the different factions within the natural foods movement to demonstrate how the philosophies and goals of adherents often differed. In contrast, McGrath frames the figures in later chapters, like the Rodale family, Weil, and Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey, as building on the popularity of countercultural ideals for their own financial gain. McGrath successfully links her case studies by the market-based scope of her figures’ emphasis on personal consumption and activism-cum-entrepreneurship.
McGrath’s first two chapters on co-ops and vegetarian cookbooks reflect the breadth of her archival sources. These chapters benefit from access to archives and interviews with The People’s Food Co-op, Weaver’s Way Co-op, and Members of the Bloodroot Restaurant and Collective. The remaining chapters draw primarily from publications by the actors themselves and journalism of the period. McGrath is clearly engaged with the literature of the field. However, her prose favors a narrative approach rather than in-text discussions with related works. This is particularly noticeable in her approach to Warren Belasco’s 1989 book Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took On the Food Industry, as it is broadly considered a foundational work in the field of food studies. McGrath briefly mentions Appetite for Change as a “keynote analysis” and considers Belasco’s argument in the context of cookbooks, yet a more in-depth engagement with his argument that the food counterculture experienced limited success at reforming the food system could have been a fruitful way for McGrath to further advance her argument (p. 4). The same could be said of Laura J. Miller’s argument in Building Nature’s Market: The Business and Politics of Natural Foods (2017)—that the consumerist focus of the natural foods movement kept it from making political strides.
McGrath’s prose, while lively and engaging, at times seems to reflect potential judgment of the historical actors. She is particularly critical of Maria Rodale, the third-generation leader of the wellness publishing company Rodale, who McGrath describes as adhering to a “fluffy bastardization of the feminist and countercultural ‘personal is political’ credo” (p. 125). McGrath offers a similar critique of author Barbara Kingsolver’s statement “we have come a long way, baby, into bad eating habits and collaterally impaired family dynamics” by referring to it as a “cheeky bastardization of women’s movement lingo” (p. 180). She describes John Mackey as being “self congratulatory” and Michael Pollan as being more comfortable in his Berkeley kitchen than engaging in the “gritty and boring business of electoral and grassroots coordination” (pp. 187, 199). While McGrath’s language is transparently subjective, it is at times distracting from the argument, especially since she does not explicitly situate her own beliefs at any point.
Overall McGrath’s work makes an important contribution to food studies, environmental studies, and the historiography of the natural foods movement. McGrath’s focus on the various threads of the movement are useful in elucidating how the natural foods landscape we struggle to define today emerged from varied stakeholders and visions.
. Food and Drug Administration, “Use of the Term ‘Natural’ in the Labeling of Human Food Products,” December 21, 2015, Docket ID: FDA-2014-N-1207, https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=FDA-2014-N-1207.
Citation: Clare Gordon Bettencourt. Review of McGrath, Maria, Food for Dissent: Natural Foods and the Consumer Counterculture since the 1960s. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54400This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.