Hansen: 'Food is political' — in a good way

Editor's note: Veteran journalist and Laguna Beach resident David Hansen has agreed to write a weekly column for the Coastline Pilot. This is his first.


Leonardo Zagal is not who he seems. At face value, the lean 30-year-old with spiky hair could be an out-of-work soccer player as he hustles Afghan food samples at the Laguna Beach Farmers Market. But, like Afghanistan, appearances are deceiving.

Zagal was born in Mexico City, educated at Berkeley, lives in Hollywood and now is often mistaken for an Afghan peddler.

"Free samples, low-fat, healthy food," he barks, trying to lure leery patrons.

An older, white-haired man pauses, eyeing the spreads.

"What is it?" the man asks, leaning closer to the food, an assortment of flatbread stuffed with spinach, pumpkin, potato or lentil. It is smothered with a tantalizing array of sauces: garlic mint cheese, cilantro pesto, sun-dried tomato, lentil curry, eggplant or hummus.

"It's Afghanistan …," Zagal starts to say, holding out a sample.

Hearing "Afghanistan," the man recoils and wrinkles his nose. "No, no, thank you," he says bristling, walking away quickly.

"I get that sometimes," Zagal says, putting down the sample on a plate. "People are taken aback. Some people don't understand. Food is political."

When asked what he means by "food is political," Zagal puts his bachelor's degree in economics to work.

"When people are buying this food, they are investing in the whole process chain — the local economy, where it comes from, how it's made, the working conditions, who they are buying it from. They might be from Mexico, Canada or Afghanistan."

Zagal pauses and makes more samples. He shakes his head.

Given the war in Afghanistan, it's not surprising that Zagal feels obligated to represent and answer questions about his adopted "homeland." He has to explain, educate and sometimes steer conversations back to the food to make it tangible.

He has become well versed in the culture and geography of Afghanistan, trying to better understand the impact that location and circumstance can have on food.

It could be any food, Zagal says, but he believes in the values behind the product, sold under the brand name Bolani by East and West Gourmet Afghan Food, headquartered in Concord. Zagal met the founder of the company in the Bay Area while he was going to school.

Zagal graduated an expert in economics but gave up his plan of going into banking. He started appreciating the spirit of food, its history, its significance in the value chain of life.

"Food reminds you of your family. It makes you comfortable, it makes you happy."

Another customer comes up eagerly, determined. She knows what she wants.

"Most of my customers are women," Zagal says, smiling. "Probably 80%."

We speculate on why.

The spreads, I say.

My grandmother used to make her own jams and can her own fruit. There were always Mason jars and fresh concoctions, built from the garden out back. Breakfast was always big, lasting through lunch.

"You're right," he says.

As if on cue, another woman arrives.

There is an incongruity here that cannot be explained and is quintessentially American. A Mexican, educated at one of the finest universities in the United States, selling Afghanistan food in an eclectic, world-class village called Laguna Beach for the fun of it.

It doesn't happen everywhere.

"There is a Costco in the Bay Area, and there is some conflict," Zagal says, describing another location where they sell. "People don't want to try it. Demographics influences the reaction. In Laguna, the vibe is very chill, very progressive, very artsy, very creative, which I like. You're inspired here."

We are inspired, one flatbread at a time, thousands of miles away from a country at war. But it doesn't matter because the spinach Bolani is amazing. The food is soothing, healing, standing on its own.

If only it worked in war.

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