Laughing at Locavores with L. John Harris

Berkeley's "garlic guru" chronicles culinary history.

Urgent pleas for “food justice” leave L. John Harris as cold as sorbet. The politicization of food “is a neurosis in its own right,” said Harris, who after studying art at UC Berkeley joined the California Cuisine movement of the 1970s as a garlic activist, Chez Panisse waiter, Cheese Board Collective clerk, and Swallow Cafe cook.

“We are being asked to save the food system and, indeed, the planet by ‘voting with our forks,'” Harris said. “I often do vote with my fork, of course … but I feel like I’m living and eating in a foodie loony bin. It’s all very Berzerkeley, God love us, but the truth is, I’d just like to sit down and eat a good meal sometimes without having to think so hard about it. I label all the foodie trends today — organic, sustainable, head-to-tail, locavore, etc. — left-brain gastronomy, using the part of the brain that’s analytical, structured, and very controlled. Old gourmets like me, we cook and eat with the right side of the brain, the side that’s spontaneous, sensorial, and pleasure-oriented.”

Sensory pleasure pours through his new book Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History, which he will discuss at Mrs. Dalloway’s (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Monday, November 22, and whose cartoons and commentary riffs on everything from baguettes and carving knives to what happens when chefs marry each other. (The “museum” is imaginary.) Celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower wrote its foreword.

Harris’ 1974 volume The Book of Garlic transformed him into “the garlic guru” and “Mr. Garlic” on radio and TV. He is credited with brainstorming Chez Panisse’s first annual Bastille Day garlic festival in 1976. And he calls himself “a culinary Forrest Gump.”

“In the novel if not the film, Gump is less of a low-IQ shrimper than an actual idiot savant with certain incredible talents. … I identify with his habit of popping up in the middle of important cultural and political events of the day without intending to. … I popped up, or fell into, the middle of an important cultural phenomenon: a food revolution that started in Berkeley and spread across the US. At one point in the book I call our culinary arts crowd ‘accidental foodists,’ which is another way of describing the unexpected and unintended quality of what happened in Berkeley around food.”

A portion of the proceeds from Foodoodles benefits the Berkeley Food and Housing Project. “They do a heroic job in Berkeley and the East Bay helping the hungry and homeless,” Harris said. “Most people don’t have the opportunity to indulge in food as art in fancy remodeled kitchens. Many just need a place to live and something to eat. … I like the fact that BFHP is a kind of old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts charity without any foodie pretensions. They tried to upgrade their food once, but none of their clients, no matter how hungry, would eat it.” 6:30 p.m., free.


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