Inside the hippie chic world of whole-foods pioneer
Is Brenda Langton a hippie?
The veggie burgers would seem to suggest so. Three plump, beige patties sizzle in a cast-iron skillet, nudged along with a spatula wielded by Langton’s husband, Timothy Kane, who this evening is dressed head to toe in poet’s black.
Langton has the night off from Spoonriver, her boxcar-narrow, mod-chic restaurant adjacent to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Health-minded theatergoers are probably packing the place right now, noshing on pre-curtain pistachio terrine. But here in her own Minneapolis home, an open-plan living space overlooking Cedar Lake, Langton’s having a drink. She drops a shot of yuzu juice into a blond beer.
“We’re having Cafe Brenda Burgers—which we used to call Commonplace Burgers,” she says. “It’s actually our oldest recipe.”
By this, she means it’s the oldest recipe at Spoonriver. It’s also the oldest recipe in Langton’s brand-new The Spoonriver Cookbook, published this April by the University of Minnesota Press. But more important, for Langton, the veggie burger is a potent symbol of identity. It is both a totem of her radical past and, with its heart-healthy composition of whole grains and seeds, a through-line to her present as a food-as-medicine advocate.
Commonplace Cooperative Restaurant was the socialist café in St. Paul where Langton cut her restaurant teeth. She was hired there in 1972, at the age of 15.
“It was somewhat fringe,” Langton recalls. “Very liberal. Very gay. The men wore skirts made out of vintage drapery. We had these funny cookbooks. The Vegetarian Epicure. Which, you know, talked about smoking joints to get you good and hungry.”
The memory elicits a trill of nervous, embarrassed laughter. It’s a reaction that will pop up repeatedly throughout the evening, as we jog through Langton’s hippie past. These days, the 55-year-old is much more Martha Stewart than Merry Prankster. In her marble-countered kitchen, she’s overwhelmingly polite. And her chirpy, Midwestern-mom voice occasionally hits Palin-esque registers. It’s this triple mash-up—of hippie ethos, Minnesota Nice hospitality, and couture aesthetic—that is Langton’s legacy. In ways both culinary and cultural, she has modernized vegetarian cooking, elevating it out of do-gooder earnestness and delivering it into a more elegant, design-forward realm.
“One thing about Brenda that always stood out—and not just in the dishes themselves, but in how she designs the dishes—is balance,” says Nick Schneider, a private chef and 10-year veteran of Langton’s restaurants. “Just a lightness and an elegance in the way that vegetables, proteins, and starches mingle on the plate and on the menu.”
The pinnacle of this Zen-like equilibrium was Cafe Brenda, the landmark (mostly) vegetarian restaurant that first made it truly sexy to go meatless in Minneapolis. After eight years of running Commonplace—she took over the co-op in 1978, at the age of 21, transforming it into the for-profit Cafe Kardemena—Langton moved the business across the river, to Minneapolis’s bohemian Warehouse District. The new space was rechristened Cafe Brenda. With its soaring atrium and large Palladian windows, it was a rebuke to the frumpy-crunchy cliché of whole-foods eateries. “We were really trying to buck the whole hanging-fern, hippie thing,” she says. It opened, in 1986, to lines around the block. In its first year, Langton and Kane, who became her business partner, earned enough for the down payment of the house we’re currently standing in.
In other words, Langton called it right. Today, holistic wellness is cool in a way that it wasn’t back in 1978. And Langton’s smartest move, which she has executed over and over again, has been to allow the good-food movement’s bedrock tenet—that we are what we eat—enough air to metamorphose and modernize. Consider it a formula: nutritional purity plus family friendliness, multiplied by contemporary mores. Or, as Langton succinctly puts it, “I live in the future.”
In keeping with the grass-fed and antibiotic-free times, Langton has added red meat to the Spoonriver menu. She even eats a little bit herself. (She had her first steak two years ago.) And at the Mill City Farmers Market, which Langton founded six years ago, the stalls strategically spill into the historic train shed of the Mill City Museum—old-school organic blended with the current vogue for reclaimed architecture.
In the kitchen, Langton spoons sticky dollops of goat cheese onto a pile of greens. Kane plucks a few foil-wrapped burger buns from a toaster oven. The meal is simple, democratic in a power-to-the-people sort of way. But there’s a posh artistry to its lightness.
Which makes me wonder: 34 years after the Commonplace Cooperative, do Kane and Langton still consider themselves hippies?
“Yes!” Kane says, emphatically.
Langton just giggles.
Gregory J. scott is Minnesota Monthly’s staff writer.