In the 1960s and 1970s, many counterculture “hippies” left the big cities in search for a different life, one focused on and tied to the land. Host Francis Lam talked with Southern food historian John T. Edge, author of The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, about the eastward migration of a West Coast hippies to the fertile land of the southern U.S. where they became farmers, and the innovative foods that resulted from their work.
Francis Lam: Let’s talk about your book, The Potlikker Papers. It is a history of the South told through food, starting with incredibly powerful stories during the civil rights movement – stories that literally made me cry. What I want to talk to you about are people we don’t necessarily associate with the South. When we think of hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, we think of California; we think of Woodstock. But you write in the book that there were hugely important hippie farming communities in Tennessee and other points in the South.
John T. Edge: If you think about that moment during the civil rights movement when it was made clear by way of protests and demonstrations that the South might be a place to quit; the South might be a place to leave. The Great Migration had been driving people north for generations. In that very same moment, the Back-to-the-Land movement catches traction and one of the places that the “long-haired hippie freaks” – I say that playfully because that’s the way they were spoken of with disdain – one of the places that the men and women of San Francisco traveled to was the American South.
Stephen Gaskin, of San Francisco, was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who taught these Monday night classes in Haight-Ashbury, helping his followers channel Eastern and Western religion. By the height of it, he was drawing 1,000 people who listened to him and ultimately followed him to Tennessee. Gaskin has a vision; he says the cities are part of the problem. As the drugs and crime intensify, Gaskin says we must quit the hate and go east. In 1971, he’s speaking before his amassed faithful about the promise of the world beyond the cities. He said the worst thing happening on the planet is the cities because the cities are the major cause of warfare, poverty, and a totalitarian police state. All those things are functions of being crowded up in cities. He says, “After the service, the caravan is taking off to Tennessee to get a farm. Because what you put your attention into, you get more of. And I need more trees, more grass, wheat, and soybeans. More healthy babies. More good-looking sane people. People that can work.”
John T. Edge
Photo: Jason Thrasher
FL: What did the South mean to them? Because if they wanted to grow trees, there are plenty of trees between California and Tennessee.
JTE: True. There was a mythology of the South for that generation; the American South was a place they believed was untrammeled. The American South was a place wherein their naive fantasies about going back to the land could be best accessed. The American South was the root of all things American; it was a kind of primeval land where they believed they could reattach the tethers between their lives and the lives of their forebears.
FL: Southern food, in so many ways, has become our national/regional food. Many things that we think of as being classic American have roots in the South. It’s interesting to think that that idea is bigger than just the food. There’s this myth of the South as being pure America. They get there and have these farming communities. How did they interact with their neighbors? Did they influence their neighbors and their neighbors influence them?
JTE: Stephen Gaskin and his followers at the farm came south because they appreciated the agrarian lifestyle that was possible in Tennessee. They saw value in the men and women they met. There was an intergenerational connection there; these were young people in their 20s and 30s, and they befriended people of an older generation, people in their 60s and 70s. This was also a moment in the American South when the Foxfire books came to the fore. A teacher in north Georgia assigned his students to go visit with their elders and learn how they skinned a hog or how they made lye soap. That intergenerational connection that the Foxfire books engendered was the same sort of exchange that Stephen Gaskin and his followers aimed for. They wanted to learn the old ways. They wanted to learn how to farm with a mule and a plow. They saw the same appeal in those kinds of connections that they did when they dropped the needle on a Joan Baez album and recognized that when she sang “Butcher Boy,” it was borrowed from Appalachian hollers and Appalachian songs.
The Potlikker Papers
by John T. Edge
FL: You wrote that these were largely vegetarian communities. Certainly, much of Southern food is naturally vegetarian, but this is also a place that worships the pig. You also write that these communities have far-reaching influence that we still feel today. What were they eating?
JTE: The first crop they adopted was a crop already resonant in the American South and that part of Tennessee – sorghum. They raised and harvested the crop communally. There’s a beautiful picture in my book with these long-haired kids standing around pulling in the sorghum harvest. They marketed that sorghum, came up with labels, and sold them in stores around town. “Beatnik Sorghum” was the label under which they sold it. They knew how they were perceived in the community, and they played off it. They were honest about the exchange, which to me was beautiful. They recognized that the communities around them found them odd. This was a moment when, after the Tate-LaBianca murders, people saw long-haired hippies and thought, “This is some kind of cult that’s come to visit us.” Gaskin and his followers were as open as they possibly could be. They were wide-eyed and almost beatific in their approach to these elders; they said, “Teach us. We want to learn.”
FL: At the same time, they invented nutritional yeast and started making commercial tofu. Tell us about the innovations they made.
JTE: Gaskin had a vision that soybeans were the future tense food; along with growing sorghum, they began to grow soybeans. Gaskin and his followers were innovative. They conceived one of the first soy ice creams, which they called “Ice Bean.” They also began working on tempeh using sweet potato slips. These innovations were the way they paid the bills. These were commercial enterprises; the farm was self-sustaining for the longest time. The farm – and the people that lived there – thought the way they would sustain their community was by way of agrarian beliefs and knowledge.
FL: I love that they had to invent and innovate. They integrated themselves in terms of the people, but they couldn’t integrate their economy, necessarily, so they had to create things like soy ice cream.
JTE: They tried hard to integrate within the community. There’s a great scene in the book wherein people from the farm and a Pentecostal church nearby gather to have a joint service. It’s those moments which were quite intentional on the part of the farm. They had deep respect for their neighbors and wanted to communicate that by talking about religion in an open format. One of my favorite parts about that, in researching that moment in the farm’s history, I found an article in The Tennessean, and when you look at the byline, it’s Al Gore Jr.
JTE: He was a cub reporter.
FL: That was the beginning of Al Gore’s career too. So much began over there in the woods of Tennessee.