Read an Excerpt from Hippie Food by Jonathan Kauffman

Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by San Francisco Chronicle food writer, Jonathan Kauffman is a social history of the health food movement tracing its roots back to the 1800s and circling back through the 1960s to present day. This narrative history traces the colorful origins of once-unconventional foods like sprouts, brown rice, and tofu, and the diverse fringe movements, charismatic gurus, and 1960s counterculture that brought them to the mainstream, creating a distinctly American cuisine.

Today we focus on we focus on another essential “hippie food” with this excerpt from the book.

Alfalfa Sprouts

Eating the newest and most fragile of sprouted seeds is an an­cient practice. East Asian households have long supplied them­selves with fresh vegetables in winter by sprouting soybeans and mung beans. Egyptian women of the pharaonic ages scarfed fenugreek sprouts to make themselves more curvy. Victorian-era Brits sprouted mustard and cress seeds in clay jars to fill tea sand­wiches. Until the 1970s, though, only Southern Californians ate raw alfalfa sprouts.

The origins of the practice are unclear, but it emerged from the health-food movement. From the 1920s to the 1950s, alfalfa tablets were a B-list tonic in health-food stores. A 1920 advertisement for Sterrett’s Alfalfa Compound, for instance, claimed the tablets were “an infallible remedy for Indigestion, Constipation, Neuritis, Rheu­matic pains, and all character of Nerve and Stomach troubles.”61

Some southerners did sprout alfalfa, but not for eating. The San Antonio Evening News reported in 1922 that Texans were drinking a tea made by pouring hot water over alfalfa sprouts; other than that it was “refreshing,” the paper didn’t mention why.62 In 1953, supple­ment manufacturer Pavo suggested one use: “Drink it as directed, not only for relief of Arthritis, but to supplement your diet with valuable vitamines [sic] and minerals to help maintain that feeling of well-being.”63

The first mentions of alfalfa sprouts on salads and sandwiches only appeared in Los Angeles newspapers in the late 1950s. Though I haven’t been able to identify the person who introduced them to midcentury food faddists, I’d guess that Californians who became familiar with bean sprouts at Chinese and Japanese restaurants had the idea to take alfalfa seeds out of tablets and put them into sprouting jars, seeing them as another source of vital, living nutrients.

In a 1957 advertorial in the Pasadena Star News titled “Just Between Girl Shoppers,” Betty Harris wrote, “Since one of the newest eating fads is to chomp alfalfa sprouts in soups or salad, Hines [Grocery Store] has these. They look like bean sprouts and are supposed to be especially good for us. They do wonders for cattle, I know.”64 A year later, Gloria Swanson—legendary for her health-food regimens, and a later fan of George Ohsawa and macrobiotics—was telling news reporters that her favorite lunch was alfalfa sprouts, salad, yogurt, and milk.65 By that time, of course, Gypsy Boots and Lois Bootzin were already serving alfalfa sprout sandwiches to Health Hut customers.

By the early 1970s, alfalfa sprouts were de rigueur on avocado sandwiches and salads all across the country. Grocery stores sold packs of them, but most people grew alfalfa sprouts at home. “Sprouted seeds and grains are cheap, easy, untouched by chem­icals, and delicious,” the Washington, D.C., Quicksilver Times reported in 1971.66 Mainstream magazines and newspapers ran sprouting guides. Bruford Scott Reynolds’s 1973 How to Survive with Sprouting appeared in bookstores. You could find sprouting kits in food co-ops and dime stores alike. Alfalfa sprouts were no longer a tonic for arthritis, but as essential to the crunch of a good sandwich as lettuce and pickles.

Hippie Food by Jonathan Kauffman is available now wherever books are sold. Follow the author on Twitter @jonkauffman and at

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