What’s Eating San Francisco?

If you drive around San Francisco and go up and down its many hills, you will notice long lines of people standing on the sidewalk looking bored. Nine times out of ten, they are not waiting to get into a bank or a bordello, but into a restaurant, a bakery, a café, a taqueria, a bistro or a pizza palace.

In San Francisco, restaurants and the like are temples consecrated to the worship of food. Much the same could be said about food temples in Chicago, New York and L.A., though there’s a difference. As one of the world’s capitals of technology—and home to Google, Facebook and Apple—San Francisco boasts, as almost everyone knows, a young population with disposable income, or so they think. How much longer the boom will last isn’t clear to them or to the members of the Federal Reserve System and the White House, though rest assured, bust will follow boom.

Meanwhile citizens line up outside restaurants, cafes, and the like to secure a table, order sumptuous dishes and put the bill on a credit card. San Francisco lives to eat more than it eats to live. The city grows more obese by the day. 

It was big news here the other day when an upscale restaurant announced that it was closing. The owner, who isn’t Mexican or a Latina, explained that she was going to open a Mexican restaurant, though there are already dozens of Mexican restaurants in San Francisco, some of them with decent food. An editor ofThe Chronicle, which reviews restaurants religiously asked me what goes on in my neck of the woods, an hour or so north of the Golden Gate Bridge where people call San Francisco, “The City.” I had a ready-made answer for her. “Wine, food and marijuana,” I said. “We consume reds, whites and bubblies, smoke weed and eat.” 

There’s also the work that it takes to grow grapes, marijuana, and vegetables as well as raise goats, chickens, pigs, cows. One person with a tractor can grow enough vegetables for a village. One man or woman with land can cultivate enough cannabis to get the entire work force at Amazon stoned for a month, and one grape grower and wine maker can produce enough Pinot and Cabernet for a battalion.

I used to say that the movie industry defined California. Movies are still big, but now more than ever before restaurants, food and wine define California. Even the director and producer, Francis Ford Coppola is now in the food, wine and cannabis industry. 

One wonders what’s eating the Golden State. In part, citizens are eating because they’re hungry, but the obsession with food goes far beyond hunger. In San Francisco, which I know better than L.A., San Diego and San Jose, people eat in restaurants as a form of “conspicuous consumption” as Thorstein Veblen—once a professor at Stanford—called it in his 1899 classic The Theory of the Ruling Class. San Franciscans eat and overeat because they’re driven by fear and anxiety— the fear that one day they really will be as hungry as the starving millions all around the world. Eating is a false hedge against real, future hunger. It’s a way of saying, “we're not like you others who are literally starving to death.”

The only line I willingly join in San Francisco is at Arizmendi Bakery on Valencia Street in the Mission District. The pizza, scones and breads are affordable, wholesome and tasty. I like supporting Arizmendi because it’s a worker-cooperative. I also shop for food at two worker-owned cooperatives—Other Avenues and Rainbow—where people seem to have a healthier attitude toward food and eating than at Safeway where shoppers buy far more than they will ever eat.

Arizmendi, Other Avenues and Rainbow don’t belong to what Gray Brechin called Imperial San Francisco. That book was published in 1999. In the past 20 years, The City has become not only more imperial than ever before, but also even more decadent in nearly every way, including food. The San Francisco eating frenzy makes me want to eat less and eat out less.  

I’m reminded now of the Berkeley silk-screening collective, where in the 1970s, my comrades and I made T-shirts that said, “Eat the Rich.” That slogan didn’t really haunt anyone. Every since then, the rich have been eating the poor here and all around the world. 

(Jonah Raskin is the author of Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.)

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