What the Mother of the Organic Food Movement Can Still Teach Us

May 19, 2017

Though she published 38 books throughout her lifetime, Beatrice Trum Hunter was perhaps best known for her landmark The Natural Foods Cookbook, published in 1961. It was a codex of recipes that championed, in her own words, “the use of whole, natural foods.” These were recipes that privileged whole grains over refined flours, yeast over baking powders. This was a good decade before anything resembling an organic food movement had fermented in America. Trum Hunter's cookbook was the first of its kind.

Trum Hunter passed away on Wednesday in hospice care—a specific cause of death was not given by her family—in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. She was 98. What stimulated her interest and eventual devotion to cooking with organic, natural ingredients was encountering 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, the 1933 book by Arthur Kallett and Frederick J. Schlink, as a high school girl in Brooklyn. The book was a carefully-angled polemic against the abstruse, unspecific ways corporate stakeholders marketed food to Americans, and she found the book's provocations both enlightening and terrifying. After a long stint as a public school teacher in New York City, Trum Hunter and her husband, John Hunter, migrated to New Hampshire and began to write the book that would make her famous.

“The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating,” she wrote in The Natural Foods Cookbook's introduction. “For those who have never savored the goodness of whole foods, there is pleasant discovery in store.” The book would be an initiation for the ignorant and uninformed, yet she was criticized heavily for it, with some gatekeepers in the nutrition field doubting her claims to authority (“Not only a crank, but a crackpot!” she joked to one interviewer nearly a decade ago regarding the reaction she faced).

Photo by Simon & Schuster

But Trum Hunter continued to champion cooking with non-processed ingredients in her later works, from The Sweetener Trap and How to Avoid It to A Whole Foods Primer. Time may have diluted the meaning of words like "whole," "natural," and "organic," because of their sheer ubiquity, but long before they would become part of common parlance, Trum Hunter showed us how to give them meaning.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Winifred R. May 22, 2017
My life in the 1970's was right in that area (SW New Hampshire) and I cooked using lots of those principles - whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, and so forth. Of course it was an extension of local cooking anyway with U-Pick farms, local cheeses, milk and eggs, and seasonal produce then. Now we're headed back to similar types of cooking nearly 40 years later, but with a boost of some added ingredients or exposure to new cuisines. Not such a bad thing.
Carla F. May 20, 2017
We didn't have her cookbook, but her ideas definitely influenced my eating in my 20s. I moved to a town with a Co-op, and the first time I went in there, I saw all the bins of bulgur, beans, and other weird food and said to my partner, "There's nothing to EAT in here." Fast forward two years, and we were roaming the aisles of the Safeway because it was late and the Co-op was closed for the evening. I turned to my partner in utter frustration and pronounced, "There's nothing to EAT in here!" Thanks to Hunter, Lappe, and others like them.
Whiteantlers May 19, 2017
That cookbook was a frequently used tome in my 70s era kitchen and stood next to Frances Moore Lappe's 2 Small Planet cookbooks.