Cosmopolitan Localism: San Francisco Bay Area Food Movements

May 31, 2014 by

While most people around the world eat whatever is available and allowed by custom, for many residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, the answer to “What’s for dinner?” has as much to do with health, the environment, social justice, and social distinction as it does with the food per se. San Francisco and environs have become the fountainhead of many food movements, some of which have spread far beyond the Bay Area. Others, however, remain a “San Francisco thing”.

So-called “California cuisine” grew out of several culinary movements in the last decades, representing to some extent an antithesis of the state’s traditional cuisine. (Curiously, Wikipedia dedicates two separate articles – “California cuisine” and “Cuisine of California” – to these two concepts.) While there are some similarities between these two gastronomical approaches, California cuisine, identified with such chefs as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, is much more conceptual. Its two main principles are the fusion of foodways from around the world and the use of freshly prepared ingredients from the region. It is, in other words, both intensely global and intensely local.

Given the cultural and linguistic diversity of San Francisco Bay Area, it is not surprising that fusion cuisine, pioneered by Austrian transplant Wolfgang Puck, has become so locally popular. While the traditional cuisine of California incorporates dishes from the cookbooks of Mexico, El Salvador, Hawaii, Japan, and other countries, fusion cuisine combines elements of various culinary traditions without being identifiable with any one particular one. Thus Asian fusion restaurants typically feature South Asian, East Asian, and Southeast Asian dishes alongside one another, as well as hybrid entrees and appetizers. Another fusion approach uses forms based on one cuisine, but prepared with ingredients and flavors inherent to another. Examples include Greek-style sushi, made with spiced ground lamb and capers rolled in rice and grape leaves (resembling inside-out dolmades), and “Taco pizza”, prepared like an Italian pizza but using Mexican taco ingredients, such as pepper jack cheese and refried beans. Wolfgang Puck, whose San Francisco fusion restaurant Postrio combines Mediterranean and Asian cooking, has also popularized the use of non-traditional pizza ingredients, such as barbecued meats.

The other crucial component of California cuisine is local ingredients. While most of the world “eats local” by necessity, in the San Francisco Bay Area, doing so has become an article of faith. Corey Lee, formerly the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s destination restaurant in Yountville, California and now chef and owner of Benu restaurant in San Francisco, said in a Huffington Post interview: “Local, sustainable, artisanal: It’s redundant to mention those things on a menu. In California, if you are at a good restaurant, you can assume that the ingredients will be good and that they’ll be cooking seasonally.” Taking their cue from Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, which opened in 1971, most San Francisco Bay Area restaurants now source their ingredients from local growers and farmers’ markets.

For people like Alice Waters, the goals of sustainable foods and promotion of local farmers are intertwined with opposition to the globalization of agricultural products. This shared agenda ties local San Francisco sustainability and farmers’ market movements with a much larger, international campaign known as Slow Food. As its name suggests, this movement opposes the fast food industry, itself a product of the legendary car culture of Southern California, where restaurant chains such McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, In-N-Out Burger, Carl’s Jr., Del Taco, Original Tommy’s, Fatburger, and Big Boy all started. The Slow Food movement started in 1986 with a protest campaign against a McDonald’s outlet opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome. In 2008, San Francisco hosted the inaugural Slow Food Nation, one of the largest food events in U.S. history. More than 50,000 people joined to celebrate slowly cooked, leisurely eaten, and sustainably produced foods. In addition to a specially-created “victory garden” in front of San Francisco City Hall, a marketplace, tasting rooms, photo exhibits, and more, Slow Food Nation featured panels led by food luminaries. Speakers included the author of the 2002 bestseller Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser, and the founder of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini.

But regardless of the political agenda, eating locally grown, seasonal foods is an easy choice in California since its highly differentiated, mild Mediterranean climate, allows the production of a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. And the far outskirts of the Bay Area dip into the Central Valley, the premier agricultural tract in the U.S. Constituting less than one percent of the total farmland in the United States, the valley produces eight percent of the nation’s agricultural output by value. California’s agriculture is dominated by high-value crops like almonds, producing 80% of the global supply and 100% of the U.S. commercial crop.

While eating local has become the mantra of the Bay Area food world, “local” means different things to different people (unlike organic standards, which entail specific legal definitions, inspection processes, and labels). How much of localism is focused on eating with the seasons? Using sustainable ingredients? Shopping at farmers’ markets? Having a garden? All of that—or more?

Some foodies go to extremes. One publicized case involved a couple from Vallejo who challenged themselves to go a year without buying groceries. They might have been inspired by Found Fruit, an Oakland group that forages, fishes, and raises its own food. Other “concerned culinary adventurers”, as one group characterizes themselves, come up with creative solutions such as bartering for backyard crops. The Bay Area’s abundant suburban fruit crop often goes unharvested, presenting many opportunities for systematic exchange.

100radiusTo some, “eating local” entails restricting consumption to foods harvested within a specific radius of one’s home, most often 100-miles. This practice is adopted by “locavores”, a term coined by San Francisco’s Jessica Prentice for World Environment Day in 2005. Because of the excitement and momentum building in the local food movement, the New Oxford American Dictionary chose locavore as its word of the year in 2007. Not surprisingly, a restaurant called Locavore opened that year in San Francisco.






Numerous locally grown and produced foods are available within the 100-mile radius of San Francisco. West Marin county produces oysters, mussels, abalone, grass-fed beef, diverse artisanal cheeses, and organic milk. The North Coast waters of the Pacific provide seasonal fish and seafood like salmon, ling cod, and crab, while the estuaries yield halibut, sturgeon, and bass. Sonoma County—the original incubator of factory-style egg production—is now the home of sustainable chicken raising, and spring lamb production. Dozens of small farms in both Sonoma and Napa counties produce heirloom fruits and vegetables, as well as quality mushrooms, and fine wines. Mendocino county is noted not only for its cannabis, but also for its wild mushrooms; it is home to an annual Mushroom Festival in November. Particular areas in the greater Bay Area are noted for their specialty crops. Almost all artichokes grown in the U.S. come from Monterey county. Here the town of Castroville in holds an annual artichoke festival and proclaims itself to be “The Artichoke Center of the World”, though this title better belong to the town of Cerda in Sicily, which also holds an artichoke festival; Cerda’s artichoke statue is also classier than that of Watsonville. (Artichokes probably originated in Sicily; today, Italy is by far the world’s major producer, with the output nearly ten times that of the U.S.) Another food-related town moniker is “Garlic Capital of the World”, the nickname of Gilroy in southern Santa Clara county. Gilroy’s annual Garlic Festival features various garlicky foods, including ice cream. But despite its epithet, Gilroy is no longer a leader in garlic production; this title instead goes to China. Although relatively little garlic is now grown in the area, Gilroy still processes more garlic than anywhere else in the world, in pickled, minced, and powdered form.

sf-farmers-marketsThose who are not inclined to grow their own backyard gardens, forage for mushrooms, fish for salmon or crab, or even to travel to small-scale farms within the 100-mile radius circle, can purchase locally grown foods at numerous farmers’ markets and up-scale grocery stores in the Bay Area. The city of San Francisco itself is home to more than 20 farmers’ markets that run on different days of the week, Wednesday and Sunday being most popular. The greater Bay Area supports over 50 farmers’ markets, as well as dozens of green grocers who source their goods from local purveyors.



Another food-related movement that grew out of the anti-globalization, anti-consumerism, and environmentalist movements is freeganism. The word freegan is a portmanteau of free and vegan, unsurprisingly, since many freegans are also vegans, avoiding flesh foods, dairy and eggs. Strict vegans also shun fur, leather, wool, down, and cosmetics and chemical products tested on animals. But the main inspiration of the freegan movement is combatting waste, as followers claim that up to one third of the world’s food is squandered. In protest against such loss, freegans employ a range of alternative strategies that aim to limit the damage that results from the production of goods. Freeganism thus overlaps in many ways with “hard core environmentalism”. Freegan strategies, based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption, include “dumpster diving,” plate scraping, wild foraging, gardening, barter, and even such illegal activities as theft and scams. The main goal is to avoid paying for food. Sharing food obtained through these practices is also part and parcel of the freegan commitment to social justice. Groups such as Food Not Bombs , whose ideology is based on the idea that misplaced corporate and government priorities allow hunger to persist in the midst of abundance, recover food that would otherwise go to waste to serve warm meals on the street to anyone who wants them. Food Not Bombs activists have been heavily involved in supporting “occupation camps” across the U.S., including Occupy San Francisco, where a Food Not Bombs kitchen was removed in a late night police confrontation in mid-October 2011.

Freegans are not the only food enthusists who run afoul of the law. “The Underground Food Movement”, which started in Oakland, California, has had its own run-ins with the state’s legal system. The Underground Food Movement seeks to bridge the gap between private and personal eating experience (such as eating a homemade meal with one’s family) and public and commercialized eating (such as getting chicken nuggets from the drive-thru window at a chain restaurant). The realm of shareable food is flourishing with community meal exchange, potlucks, gift-economy restaurants , community food growing projects, food swap events , pop-up stores, stone soup gatherings (where guests bring ingredients for a meal), food-buying cooperatives, goat-sharing, chicken cooperatives, events like The Big Lunch, and so on.

One challenge faced by such mass unconventional exchanges is finding the elusive legal point of toleration by authorities. Although the San Francisco health code specifically exempts “private clubs” and “private events,” city health officials step in when they exceed a certain size. For example, the Health Department initially gave a nod to San Francisco’s Underground Market, recognizing it as a private event where people exchange—albeit, with money—homemade foods. But as its popularity grew, and hundreds and even thousands of people lined up to join, the market was judged to have passed from the private to the public realm. In June 2011, city authorities put a halt to the whole operation. At present, the market is in limbo , and its founders, along with the Health Department and many others, are chewing on the question: What exactly constitutes a private event or private club?


While the San Francisco food movement gains strength, not all of its aspects are likely to appeal. Entomophagy, or eating bugs, would be the prime example. The consumption of insects has long been practiced in many Asian and Latin American cultures. Six-legged creatures are often eaten out of necessity, and sometimes as the only affordable way to get enough protein, but they also have their fans. Yet entomophagy has never caught on in Europe or North America, Western cultural prejudice run deep against eating land invertebrates,* quite in contrast to those of the sea, such as oysters, clams, snails, squid, and octopus. According to Marston Bates’ Gluttons and Libertines. Human Problems of Being Natural, “among Western peoples there are also accounts of occasional individuals addicted to insect- or spider-eating – usually reported circumspectly, as though one were dealing with a sort of sporadic and rare, but repulsive, food perversion”. All efforts to persuade modern Europeans or Americans to put aside this anti-insect prejudice have failed, among them Vincent M. Holt’s classic 1885 book Why Not Eat Insects. Holt even provided sample European-style menus, including such supposedly mouth-watering delicacies as “fried soles with woodlouse sauce”, “boiled neck of mutton with wireworm sauce”, “cauliflowers garnished with caterpillars”, and “moths on toast”.

In San Franciscans, some are now willing to give bug-eating a try. A local chef and artist, Monica Martinez, holds the nation’s first permit to operate a food cart specializing in insects, Don Bugito. She practiced her entomophagic culinary creations at the 2011 Street Food Festival, where customers lined up to sample her cricket salad, wax moth larvae tacos, and toffee mealworms. In accordance with San Francisco’s tradition of conceptualizing all food practices, Martinez envisions her cart not just as a way to introduce edible bugs to the public palate, but also as a device to teach about cultural history and sustainable food ecosystems.

While the way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, for many San Franciscans, the way to their stomach lies first and foremost through their minds.



*Land snails, however, are eaten in part of Europe, especially in France. Yet many other Europeans and most Americans find the practice repellent.


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