One warm San Francisco night in 1970, Jeffrey, a friend’s boyfriend, took me along to a Velvet Underground gig at a San Francisco nightclub. Jeffrey was an astrologer who had been kicked out of a Boston commune centered around Mel Lyman of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Lyman was a self-proclaimed avatar of Christ. Jeffrey was wandering in the wilderness, doing good works in hopes of getting back in Jesus’s good graces. On the principle that it is better to give than to receive, Jeffrey had cast Lou Reed’s astrology chart and was hand-delivering it to the club. I was happy to accompany him while he did the Lord’s work. Praise God, I didn’t get carded.
The Velvet Underground’s presence was a palpable journey into an urban anxiety attack. They were very New York—all black leather against the pallid skin of people whose waking hours were between sunset and dawn. A friend of Reed’s sat to the side of the tiny stage looking like a dominatrix in her civvies in a long black dress and black lace stockings, her eyes obliterated by scary-looking dark glasses—in the dimly lit room—with points like Cadillac fins at the corners. She coolly manipulated a small reel-to-reel tape recorder with one hand and held a cigarette holder in the other. In the dark club I listened to their dark songs about heroin addiction, sadomasochism, depression and death.
Earlier in the day I had baked a loaf of banana-nut bread and wrapped it in aluminum foil to give to Lou Reed. It was a mellow, California earth-mother thing to do. Grok and share food. By the time Jeffrey introduced us during the break I sensed that two different coastal mentalities were about to collide. I felt somewhat ridiculous, standing there in my faded denim bellbottoms and colorful hand-embroidered tunic, holding out a loaf of homemade bread to the wasted apparition who looked like he hadn’t slept in about five years. However, Reed received my offering with exceptional enthusiasm.
Jeffrey explained to me later that Reed thought I was handing him a “brick,” an object of desire consisting of several pounds of reefer compressed into a brick-shaped package (for easy smuggling in from Mexico) worth many hundreds of dollars! People did those kinds of things for each other, especially for rock stars. Life support has its rewards. What he did when he saw it was banana bread I will never know.
I submit that banana bread is the emblematic food of the era. It descended from a great rock and roll lineage: Elvis’s famous peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Just about every counterculture cookbook that emerged in the late sixties and early seventies contains a recipe for it. Entrepreneurial bakers hawked banana bread on the street. You could buy banana bread in health food stores, bookstores, coffee houses, head shops, at crafts fairs and at rock concerts. Banana bread satisfied many of the conflicting food philosophies and desires being batted around. It was the perfect marriage of health food, sweet junk food, exotic tropical Third World fruit ethnic food, and familiar-since-Gerber-babyhood comfort food.
People were becoming aware of the need for better nutrition and the concept of healthy eating, following the lead of early advocates such as Adelle Davis, Bernard Bragg, Gaylord Hauser and Jethro Kloss. Older, established health food stores mostly sold vitamins and supplements, and they had an ascetic, somewhat paranoid air about them. Newer, hippie-style markets with more foods than pills were messy, vibrant, colorful places filled with the aromas of wet produce and dried fruit, and brimming with strange and wonderful grains, beans, nuts, oils, and other foodstuffs in their unhulled, unfiltered and uncooked birthday suits. Yogurt was just beginning to become popular. The New York Times reported in 1968, “Early in 1966, Borden started production in the United States of ‘freshlike, full fruit flavor yogurt.’” I remember bringing a carton of lemon-flavored yogurt to Berkeley High School for lunch and feeling extremely radical and cool. Natural foods stores were initially far and few between, and you often had to make lengthy pilgrimages to get to them. They sold items largely in bulk from big barrels and tubs. You often had to bring your own containers. Sanitation in such stores was casual, with customers leaving bins uncovered, dropping schmutz on the floor, and often using their hands instead of scoops to ladle out grains, dry beans and whole grain pasta into waiting sacks. However, these were joyful renunciations of sterile supermarket environments, where everything was neatly wrapped up and encased in plastic, cans, cardboard, or various containers with pre-measured sizes and portions. Esta Bien wrote in The City of San Francisco Oracle, “Who feels called to the war against processed food for processed nonpeople, and to the creative work of production for health and sanity without which there is no dance or song, music or joy? I do!”
I would make banana bread with whole wheat flour and honey. I would throw in the supplements that early health food advocates encouraged you to add to baked goods, such as soy grits, blackstrap molasses and brewer’s yeast. I would make banana bread with oil instead of butter and sometimes fruit juice or water instead of milk. The loaf was a more or less a hefty hunk any way you sliced it. Carrot cake and zucchini bread were also high in the health food firmament; you could have your cake and eat your veggies too.
On the other hand, you could make banana bread with sugar and white flour and it would still come out a healthy-looking brown color because of the bananas. If you used walnuts it would dye the bread even a deeper brown. Brown bread was righteous. White bread was plastic. Crescent Dragonwagon wrote in The Commune Cookbook, “Baking a loaf of brown bread in this society is revolutionary, if you know why you’re doing it.” Most of us had been raised on white “balloon bread” as we disdainfully called spongy, fluffy commercial loaves. Warren Belasco wrote in Appetite for Change, “Whiteness meant Wonder Bread, White Tower, Cool Whip, Minute Rice, instant mashed potatoes, . . .White House, white racism, white collar. Brown meant whole wheat bread, unhulled rice, turbinado sugar, wildflower honey, unsulfured molasses….Whiteness meant blandness. Apparently the only person who needed a weatherman to know which way the wind blew—at least for a short time—was politico Jerry Rubin. He promoted bologna sandwiches on white bread because The People, who were the bedrock of the revolution, ate such food.)
Young people generally have a sweet tooth. Those following a strict macrobiotic diet avoided very sweet foods as being too yin. However, everyone else, even if they had abandoned the Twinkies by the roadside, was scarfing sweet trail mixes, granola, health food cookies and cakes, and glopping honey onto everything up the yin-yang. Banana bread could be construed as healthy: it’s called a bread, but in reality it is more like a cake. You could anoint it with peanut butter, then top the peanut butter with a wallop of honey for more sweetness.
Getting stoned on pot kicked out the traces from beneath food philosophies, ethics about Third World countries, politics, spirituality and other intellectual culinary constructs. When in the grip of the blind munchies, anything edible that landed in your sights landed in your mouth as well. If there was any kind of culinary discrimination while smoking weed, it was in the direction of a desire for very sweet foods and salty, crunchy chips. Late at night on weekends in Bay Area supermarkets I could always spot long-haired freaks with the tell-tale bloodshot eyes, roaming the aisles in search of popcorn, potato chips, corn chips, ice cream, cookies, pies and candy bars.
No matter how adventurous people want to think they are, food preferences from early childhood often stay firmly entrenched. How many months or years had it been for most of the young folk downing all these Brave New Foods since they had been eating what their what their mothers put on their plates? Banana bread was a familiar treat, no adjustment necessary to strange ingredients or new flavors.
For a brief and bizarre spell, there was the infamous lunacy of people attempting to get high by smoking dried banana skins. Country Joe and the Fish first tried it out in Canada. However, they sipped water laced with LSD in between smoking dried banana peels, which might have had something to do with getting loaded. They spread the word of this new, inexpensive, legal and readily available stoner when they returned to Berkeley, and the supermarkets were swept clean of bananas by the next day. The San Francisco Chronicle, always looking to scoop whatever things the crazy hippies were up to, ran a headline about smoking banana peels to get high.
The kerfuffle might have petered out quickly had it not coincided with Donovan’s new song, “Mellow Yellow,” with its reference to “electrical banana.”
A subsequent article in The City of San Francisco Oracle contained this learned exposition on banana skins: “The peel contains arterenol, a sympathomimetic agent that is also found in the human body, in the adrenal medulla, where it affects a balance control factor on the central nervous system and ultimately the heart.”
Nobody died, although some felt unwell after inhaling dried fruit skin smoke. No one got high either. The FDA even checked out the claim and determined it to be false. Almost as quickly as you could slip on a banana peel it was all over but the shoutin’.
Bread would change forever in the United States from these early forays into loaves of substance. Today there are artisan bread bakeries in every burg and their loaves are sold in supermarkets. You can grab a slice of banana bread or a banana muffin on the fly in most mainstream coffee houses or from a coffee cart near a corporate office building. They are the inheritance of a time when no one knew a carbohydrate from a carburetor and when flower children were also flour children, tweaking their taste buds in hundreds of different ways, but inevitably bringing it all back home at the end of the day to Western civilization’s bedrock of nourishment.