Who invented the food truck? Who made the burrito a staple outside the barrio? Who taught white people to stir fry? Who popularized the health food store, organics, farm fresh produce, and the grow- your-own movement? Who spread the good word about vegetarianism, veganism, raw food, macrobiotics, and sustainability long before the internet? Who decried factory farming and rainforest grazing before it was cool? And who, for the record, truly gave birth to haute stoner cuisine?
Well, it wasn't the Grateful Dead, really. Jerry Garcia, for example, famously subsisted on a "hot-dogs-and-milkshakes diet" back in his erstwhile salad days. Other band members enjoyed an unbroken chain of catered meals out on the road, prepared by such luminaries as Charlie Ayers, who went on to fame as Google's visionary executive chef, and Chez Ray, who later partnered with Grateful Dead Productions on a line of officially-licensed organic, fair-trade coffees.
And so, credit for an American food revolution with influence far beyond the scope of any individual chef of restaurant in our nation's history goes not to the Dead themselves, but to the Deadheads—particularly all those who helped feed and nourish that nomadic, psychedelic caravansary as it wound its way down oh- so-many roads.
The band performed as the Grateful Dead for the first time in 1965 at one of author Ken Kesey's legendary Acid Tests. This July they will celebrate 50 years gone by with three reunion concerts at Chicago's Soldier Field—site of the group's last performance before Garcia's death in 1995. The run of shows is also billed as a final farewell—not just for the music, but also for the moveable feast on Shakedown Street.
"I wasn't fortunate enough to go to hundreds of shows, like some lucky souls, but I would always try to string together as many as I could in reasonable driving distance," Beth Livingston, author of The Kind Veggie Burrito Cookbook, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, tells the Weed Eater. "And when you're on the road like that, you get concerned about all the junk food you're eating, and also, always, your budget. Luckily, down at what they call Shakedown Street, the major vending area of the parking lot, there were always people selling some really fine food."
Livingston says her first Dead show—April 17, 1971 in Princeton, NJ—"absolutely blew my mind and completely changed my life." She saw the band frequently over the next few years, but then dropped out of the scene for more than a decade. Then, on Halloween night in 1985, Jerry and the boys played a high-energy concert in her hometown of Columbia, South Carolina that drew her right back into the swing of things. Coming out of a show in Greensboro, North Carolina not long after, Livingston found herself ravenously hungry, at which point she crossed paths with the "kind veggie burrito" that changed her life—in more ways than one. "You could just feel all the love that went into making that burrito," she recalls. "It had such good vibes all over it, and right on the spot I decided that I didn't need to eat meat anymore. Because that burrito had everything necessary to thrive."
From there, she grew intensely interested in all the various food served in the lot, and the people who made a living—or at the very least got by—cooking it up and dishing it out. "I remember a particular stir fry that I came to love but could never replicate at home. I started jonesing for it just as much as I was jonesing for a show." So she asked the purveyors for their recipe, which became a kind of hobby, one that ultimately turned into a beloved cookbook.
"When I started asking people for their recipes, they were so generous with not just that, but also sharing their time, their stories, and of course their food. And since the Dead were from California and had those deep counterculture roots, I actually encountered a lot of food trends and even certain ingredients via the tour heads, long before they trickled into the rest of the culture. Meanwhile, if I was scamming, it would have been a great scam, because I was completely stuffed before every show."
Instead of scamming, however, Livingston handed out self-addressed stamped envelopes to the best chefs on the lot, who in turn sent her instructions for making Absolutely Kozmik Quiche, Cosmic Charlie's Cashew Tahini Spread, Steal Your Face Vegan Carrot Cake, New Potato Caboose Salad, Bertha's Black Beans and Rice, Shakedown Szechuan Noodles and many other tour favorites, including seven separate preparations for kind veggie burritos. Recipes also came in through the early Dead adopters on the internet, until she had enough to self-publish a cookbook that's sold thousands of copies and is still totally handmade with love ("like all those veggie burritos!") 20 years later—just as Livingston still donates every cent she makes from book sales to two Grateful Dead related charities, The Rex Foundation and The SEVA foundation.
"From the very beginning, I just decided, fuck profit. I really want to make this cookbook a gift back to the scene, and I'm really glad I did it that way. It's just like food. When you give something from the heart, you can taste it. And people who are hyper-sensitized, shall we say—whether that's through certain substances, or just through the heart opening experience they get at a Dead show—those people can really feel that love coming through."
And speaking of "hyper-sensitized," that reminds the Weed Eater of another tour food legend, Jessica LeRoux, far better known as the Cheesecake Lady—especially in Colorado, where her state-licensed, award-winning, marijuana-infused cheesecake company has been in operation (officially) since 2003. Unofficially, LeRoux actually started making her cheesecakes clandestinely in 1993, many years before the Rocky Mountain State legalized medicinal sales, in order to bring local hospice patients some joy and relief during their end of life.
"One time when I made the cheesecakes, there were extras, so I brought those to sell at Dead shows and they were a hit. Lots of people remembered them from place to place. Then I met some growers and one thing lead to another."
LeRoux says that aside from occasional, minor friction between "the super-conscious-veggie-espousing-types, and the grilled-meat-on-a-stick enthusiasts," the food scene on Dead lots worked collectively rather than competitively.
"We didn't just trade knowledge, meals, and ingredients; we traded everything from duct tape to dancing shoes. And there were always wonderful regional vendors of note for a portion of the tour, like the buffalo meat burrito folks, or Brownie Dave in Wisconsin, or the pumpkin rolls in the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, I feel that I made such a mark because I was baking each batch of cheesecakes fresh and selling them quick—before the end of a three-day run—rather than making hundreds of goo balls and storing them for the whole ride from coast-to-coast. I even came out with a logo in 2000, because some kids were making a poor quality, no-bake knock-off and I wanted a way to say, 'NO, it's that lady in the hat who makes the heady cheesecakes!'" LeRoux says she first encountered many trendy food concepts on tour, long before they reached the mainstream.
"Everything from falafel and hummus to sprouting, seitan, and wheatgrass juice. But my personal favorite was always the Jerry Roll: a freshly made, football-sized veggie egg roll, deep-ohfried, punctured with a pair of tongs, and then filled with this toxic sweet-and-spicy red sauce that would run out the bottom of the danged thing and all down the new tie-dyed dress you traded for earlier in the afternoon. It was always a toss-up whether the rolls were crustier, or Louie, the loud-mouthed East Coast head who sold them. Plus, you had to eat those things with your whole damn face! I've woken up with Jerry Roll sauce caked in my hair, on my dress, even in between my toes inside my sandals… and found it's still fucking worth it!"
Asked his thoughts on the lasting influence of the Grateful Dead on the American food scene, however, Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook's Illustrated, host of America's Test Kitchen, and a self-described "major Deadhead" offers a slightly sharper assessment. "Everyone in the parking lot at a Dead concert was stoned or high on acid," he tells The Weed Eater, "so everything else, including the food, wasn't really the point. It was the scene. Seems to me that the parallels with the modern food world are pretty obvious!"