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San Francisco During the Great Food Awakening

ISSUE:  Summer 2015

Illustration by Carlo Giambarresi I often encounter a category of workers in San Francisco rarely found anywhere else: twentysomethings waiting for their stock options to vest. They are part of a wave of top college graduates lured to the Bay Area by the booming tech job market anchored by Facebook, Twitter, and hundreds of start-ups partially named for items from a hardware store (Drop-box, You-tube, Live-wire). It seems that if you graduated from an Ivy League school in the last five years, whether you studied chemistry or Celtic literature, you probably work at Google. This influx of the educated, however, has not invigorated the local cultural scene, except in regard to food.

When I talk with Harvard acquaintances working in the tech sector, I hear the same story: They have astonishingly well-paid jobs that they don’t like. Some plan to stay only until their options are vested. Then they will move on to their “actual” careers. This population of the possessed waiting to be dispossessed spends an inordinate amount of time comparing the gourmet kitchens of different website headquarters. The top digital companies in the Bay Area are famed for putting on lavish buffets and encouraging employees to invite friends from rival firms to join the feasts. The company cafeteria has arguably become the preeminent battleground in local corporate bragging rights. For many young workers in the internet industry, San Francisco is a salaried vacation between college and their careers, a well-earned break before starting their adult lives. So what do they do with their free time during this purgatory? They eat.

In San Francisco, the most fashionable way to eat is to diet. 

In the Bay Area, dieting is an existential exercise. On this point its cuisine fundamentally differs from the Los Angeles diet. In L.A., eating is about the needs of the body; but in San Francisco, it has become an expression of the spirit. Limiting what you eat has become an ideological statement as much as a nutritional choice—a declaration of identity that says more about how you want to be perceived than what you want to weigh. Fad diets flourish everywhere in North America, but nowhere else do they manifest themselves so flamboyantly. This stylish metropolis represents the ideal ecosystem for the extreme; its healthy financial soil and liberal climate tend to breed radical local mutations of national diets. 

The Paleo diet—which is based on the alleged diet of cavemen, particularly meat, fish, and nuts—has been co-opted in the Bay Area by a group of mostly male tech workers called “biohackers” who are devoted to optimizing personal improvement. The California biohacking movement was popularized by Dave Asprey, the founder and CEO of the Silicon Valley–based company Bulletproof Executive. The corporate motto is blunt: “Supercharge your body. Upgrade your brain. Be Bulletproof.” The archetypes of self-help guru and hypercompetitive entrepreneur collide in the person of Asprey, who states that during a spiritual retreat in Tibet he discovered a butter-churned herbal tea that inspired the recipe for his company’s most famous product: Bulletproof Coffee, a concoction made by mixing melted butter and concentrated coconut oil into a morning cup o’ Joe. The typical Paleo follower supplements protein-heavy meals by adding saturated fats such as lard or tallow. Asprey rebrands standard upbeat Paleo rhetoric by turning nutritional supplements into cognitive performance enhancers with a product line featuring turbocharged names such as Unfair Advantage, Brain Octane, and the aforementioned Bulletproof Coffee. Biohacking is just one strain of Paleo activity. San Francisco blogger Rachel Ball, who started Grok Grub in 2012 and shares Paleo recipes that she learned from cooking with her mother, who had chronic food allergies, describes Northern California as a “melting pot” of Paleo developments.

Bloggers are the evangelists of new eating trends in the Bay Area. Paleo bloggers, in particular, command huge congregations of dietary disciples who devour a gospel of exercise ethics and specialty foods. Sports chiropractor and CrossFit trainer Anthony Gustin runs the popular Paleo Fix blog as an extension of his health-rehabilitation center in San Francisco. Chef Simone Miller advertises Paleo catering and pop-ups for the Bay Area on her blog Zenbelly, which led to her 2014 cookbook Zenbelly: An Epicurean’s Guide to Paleo Cuisine. And the most powerful local blogger, Michelle Tam, dubbed the “Martha Stewart of Paleo” by the New York Times,wields so much influence through her website Nom Nom Paleo that she has partnered with some forty Whole Foods throughout Northern California to curate a selection of recommended products labeled “Nom Nom Picks.” The campaign highlights a larger regional trend of trying to create accessible inaccessible diets, but the underlying truth is that self-restriction has come to epitomize the eating ethos of Bay Area elite. Here you are defined by what you don’t eat.

And there are so many things San Franciscans don’t eat. Intolerance, in fact, is probably the strongest unifying force in the local food community. The gluten-free gospel has spread like wildfire across Northern California, attracting so many converts that even free-market capitalism has gone gluten-free. San Francisco has spawned a wave of gluten-free services including boutique bakeries, groceries, and vacation guides. There is even a new slick magazine in the city called GFF, which explains its name as “Good Food (Forever) that also happens to be Gluten-Free (Forever).” A cottage industry has arisen of “artisan” businesses selling small batches of specialized, gluten-free products such as chocolate-covered matzohs through online orders. The most successful products have left the home kitchen altogether and expanded into small-scale manufacturing. The first issue of GFF described the frenzied scene at the 2014 Gluten Free and Allergen Free Expo around Sadie Scheffer, a Bay Area barista turned baker whose popular gluten-free recipe led to the creation of the website Bread SRSLY. Scheffer stood in the San Mateo County Event Center “doling out loaves of freshly baked sourdough” in a sea of vendors “surrounded by clamoring fans … more like a celebrity chef than a twenty-five-year-old startup baker.” 

But gluten avoidance is just a gateway diet. A sensitivity to gluten slips into an irritation at eggs; egg-free turns to dairy-free; and soy-free inevitably becomes full-fledged veganism. The San Francisco psyche tends to codify personal preferences about ingredients into distinct self-identifying groups. “Vegetarian” is an umbrella term that encompasses a broad spectrum of antimeat attitudes. In Ohio, if you consume chicken and fish but avoid beef, you don’t eat red meat; in Berkeley, you’re a pesce-pollotarian. The Bay Area has a taxonomy of vegetarian tribes including pescetarians, pollotarians, pesce-pollotarians. If there’s an animal you don’t eat, there is probably a branch of California vegetarianism for you. The only uniting principle across these “-tarians” seems to be a desire to purify oneself by renouncing some type of food. 

Some San Franciscans now give up food altogether, replacing solid fare with nutritional liquids. In 2014, Silicon Valley software engineer Robert Rhinehart designed a vitamin shake brazenly named Soylent (deliberately styled after Soylent Green), “as a way to get all the nutrients needed by the body without the time, money, and effort that usually goes into preparing food.” A beige nutritious sludge, Soylent costs less than $3 per meal and satiates one’s natural appetite while providing the body’s daily requirements. It has proven successful enough to attract $20 million in a recent funding cycle, including investments by individuals such as the CEO of the Climate Corporation.

In a different variation on the same theme, four of my six roommates in San Francisco have performed a “juice cleanse,” a procedure in which one subsists for days solely on health shakes designed to flush out the body’s wastes. “Juice” is a misleading word for these diuretic potions. The most intense juicers go on the Bataan Death March of dieting—the “Master Cleanse,” which dictates one consume nothing except eight glasses of water and a drink consisting of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and a dash of laxative. One friend went on a particularly stringent, plant-based cleanse for more than two weeks. By the end she looked emaciated, even starved. The frightening part is—medically speaking—she was.

These displays of severe self-denial resonate with something far fiercer than healthy eating. They exhibit an austerity that pushes self-denial into suffering, reflecting a psychology that’s undeniably religious. There is a fundamental social instinct for some people to restrict their behavior to prove their virtue, which traditionally found its outlet through religion. We’ve seen sacramental self-denial such as fasting in monks, nuns, and penitents. In a secular culture, the core of this ascetic impulse has moved from the spirit to the stomach: The social faith of the San Francisco Great Awakening is ethical eating.

Berkeley intellectual Michael Pollan, who is often invoked as the movement’s chief theologian, authored a catechism of moral dining in Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. The slim volume lays out sixty-four rules governing an ethical appetite across three sections titled “What should I eat?,” “What kind of food should I eat?,” and “How should I eat?” These commandments don’t articulate a positive gustatory regimen so much as a new kosher law of eating constraints. The book’s first rule is “Eat Food,” but the next ten offer negative prescriptions about things to avoid, including corn syrup, food labeled “low-fat,” and products with more than five ingredients. These creeds offer largely sensible advice, but are pedantic and demanding: “Eat slowly.” “Pay more, eat less.” “Eat less.” 

Despite the feel-good vibes and personal-health rhetoric of Pollan’s philosophy, there is an unmistakably puritanical tone to the actions of its foodie followers. Just as Calvinists believed in the “total depravity” of human nature, many trendy Californians believe in the total depravity of trans fat. Consequently, they want to tax junk foods to scold unhealthy eaters for their sinful soda cravings. Ascetics punished their bodies through prolonged fasting, while fitness fanatics punish their bowels with juice cleanses. Medieval penitents marched through the streets publicly lashing themselves. Today’s flagellant is the emaciated, gaunt sunrise jogger panting down the sidewalk in the name of health. To mortify the flesh, desert saints would restrict their meal to a crust of bread; righteous San Franciscans order kale salad for lunch.

In fact, the logic of self-mortification seems to be the best explanation for the preposterous popularity of kale—a food whose main appeal is that it tastes bad. Its fibrous texture and muddy, grass-like flavor meet our society’s subconscious conception of health food by reassuring us that we’re eating something nutritious with its encouragingly unpleasant taste. There’s no better ingredient to prove one’s dedication to dietary discipline. Choosing to eat kale must be motivated by a higher calling than your taste buds. Accordingly, kale salad has become one of the most ubiquitous dishes in the city, appearing across a ridiculously diverse array of menus. The culinary kingdom of the kale salad ranges from sophisticated sushi bar Ozumo to casual Mexican chain Tacolicious, from breakfast café Plow to cocktail bar Trick Dog. If the leafy green’s spiritual savor was not already clear: San Francisco artisan Lisa Laricchiuta launched her organic line of vegan kale chips under the name Kale Mary, Full of Taste.

The culinary culture of self-mortification extends beyond the kitchen—it now goes out the door and around the block. The definitive experience of upscale Bay Area dining is waiting in line. Whenever I go to food-truck fairs, a certain warped free-market logic impels me to choose the truck with the longest line. During a popular rotating fair held at Fort Mason on Friday nights called Off the Grid, which lasts five hours and features thirty trucks, I usually have four dishes. Twelve minutes eating; some 288 waiting. A local mystique surrounds the restaurants with the longest waits. It’s no coincidence that the corridor of 18th Street in the Mission neighborhood—which houses Delfina Pizzeria, Bi-Rite Creamery, and Tartine Bakery (popular choices for the city’s best pizza, ice cream, and bread, respectively)—is home to some of the city’s longest lines. At peak hours, sidewalk traffic is clogged in gastronomic gridlock. At these hot spots, reservations are rare or impossible. To dine you must suffer the line.

The most acclaimed of these food temples is State Bird Provisions, which won numerous national accolades including the 2013 James Beard award for Best New Restaurant in the country. It has become one of the city’s most coveted tables. The restaurant presents California cuisine dim-sum–style with waiters walking the floor offering trays of small dishes to guests (and their celebrated title dish is a refined version of fried chicken using the state bird, quail). The dining room holds about half its tables for reservations and the rest for walk-ins, but reservations are so notoriously difficult to secure that the restaurant has inspired a slew of “reservation bots” designed by programmers to snatch every online reservation moments after it becomes available. 

Jason Hung, a software engineer who created the program TableSweep that scans OpenTable every five seconds, told me that he ate at State Bird with his girlfriend, Yoko, so frequently that the restaurant briefly started canceling reservations under his name after the manager tried to make a table open online for the restaurant’s investors only to find it had already been taken by Hung’s program. 

For the less tech savvy, the line is the only option. To get a table at State Bird Provisions, I arrived at 3:30 p.m., two hours before opening. I was second in line. I was behind an affably abrasive New Yorker who was saving a table for a friend. For two hours standing on the sidewalk, we talked about other restaurant lines we had waited in. When the doors opened at 5:30, the queue was longer than the block. As the host started to take the first name, a voice boomed from across the street, “One thousand dollars! One thousand dollars,” as a wheezing man with a sort of Jackie Mason build waddled down the sidewalk. “One thousand dollars, I offered this man to save my spot!”

Waiting has become an inescapable, even essential, part of trendy eating. The waits are a point of pride for the restaurants, and oddly for the patrons as well. In fact, the main appeal of these hot spots seems to be the cachet of waiting in line. This shared sidewalk offers foodies the closest we have to a communal experience. What’s at the end only incidentally matters.

The current Bay Area food lexicon was born in the late 1970s when Alice Waters pioneered “California cuisine” with Chez Panisse in Berkeley. “Waters wedded the idea of organically grown vegetables and a simple, traditional way of cooking them to the moral imperative of a healthier and more caring world,” Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson wrote in an essay for the New York Times. “She connected how we shop, cook and eat to a shared set of underlying beliefs that a friend half-jokingly called ‘the Bay Area rendition of Republican family values.’” California cuisine became therapeutic politics for the bourgeois Bay Area eater racked with liberal guilt. The new style of cooking offered a reassuring, pastoral fantasy about the honesty of the farm. Chez Panisse connected patrons with the authenticity of rural life through a philosophy of organic ingredients, which transformed simple, home-style cooking using local produce into a vehicle for a muddled sense of moral redemption. 

Most of the benefits attributed to our most fashionable foods—“free-range,” “farm-to-table,” and “handcrafted,” to name a few—are invisible qualities. We must take these expensive virtues on faith. We cannot taste “organic” or smell “sustainable.” Like a medieval Catholic buying an indulgence, we just have to hope we are getting the prize we pay for.

Today, the primary function of this agrarian idiom is to offer diners emotional reassurance about the source of their food—hazy comfort rather than hard information. “When I see cage-free eggs on a vegetarian diet, I feel sorry for the chickens,” chef Staffan Terje, who runs the popular San Francisco spots Barbacco and Perbacco, told me. “Chickens aren’t vegetarian.” The collective consciousness of the local eater is so strongly guided by such saccharine sentiments that it’s actually considered compassionate to make farm animals follow human diets. In this rhetoric, “vegetarian” and “cage-free” dissolve from precise descriptions into blank praise: Words are used for their associations and not their meanings. While terms such as “organic” bring to mind general pictures of country life (fields, farmers, and barns), these images are essentially abstract. To describe a vegetable as “farm-to-table” is about as specific as calling a glass of milk “cow-to-cup.” 

On Sunday mornings, young, well-heeled San Franciscans wake up early for worship, but they don’t go to church—they go to brunch. Waiting in line is their Sabbath ritual. The Sunday morning meal is so embedded in the city’s culture there’s an online “heatmap” with listings for “Where to Brunch NOW.” Last spring at San Francisco magazine, I ran an online brunch poll organized like an NCAA basketball tournament bracket (pitting the city’s sixteen most popular brunch spots against one another). Tellingly, the final outcome saw a diner called Mama’s narrowly defeat Brenda’s French Soul Food. The names reveal the emotional logic underlying brunch: a sort of culinary communion with the comforts of family life represented by the holy trinity of Mama, soul, and home cooking. 

There is a natural human need to believe in a transcendent realm—something unseen that brings purpose to otherwise arbitrary actions. For those without a spiritual life, the imagination is often filled by elevating the physical to the metaphysical. The complicated politics of agriculture are replaced with the simple Edenic myth of natural farming and healthy ingredients. Eating “organic” does not automatically ensure better nutrition, nor does ordering “responsibly” at restaurants support an environmentally sustainable world. Each year medical science rejects another article of dietary dogma. But, like most true believers, foodies take their faith blind. 

One certain sign that a lifestyle has grown into a faith is when parents start imposing its rules on their children. When grocery-shopping preferences become moral mandates, one knows a fad has turned toward fanaticism. One afternoon at the See’s Candy in Stonestown Mall, I saw a young mother enter with a small son, wide-eyed with excitement. He was literally a kid in a candy store. “Do you have any vegan candy?” she asked. “Well, we’ve got peppermint, but I’m afraid that’s it,” the attendant replied. “Too bad,” the mother said, pulling her son away. As he glanced back longingly at the candy-covered shelves, she explained, “There’s just nothing you can eat here.” 


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Martin's picture
Martin · 8 years ago

Fantastic storytelling, fantastic story.

Charlotte Smith's picture
Charlotte Smith · 8 years ago

Yeah, because manufactured food has taken so many lives. I recall in a Walmart, a woman told a child that she couldn't have soda because it would kill her (child was maybe four years old).

Mama Gattara's picture
Mama Gattara · 8 years ago

Will have to try harder than this to convince 'regular Americans' that they are morally superior and better off in spite of the salary differential, which is the chief criterion of worth in the USA. Besides, Michael Moore did it better years ago: "this is San Francisco, nobody works here."


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