For a solid 1,900 years –from Acts of the Apostles days until the mid-19th century, Christians were known for their admirably inclusive palates. Yes, Catholics and orthodox believers observed Lent, along with various days of fasting and abstinence, but these were the exceptions that proved the rule. Pity the poor Jain, for whom every day was Ash Wednesday.
But then, says Daniel Fromson, American Presbyterians and Seventh-Day Adventists started getting all Levitcal, in a distinctly earthy-crunchy way:
American health food is usually said to have started with a Presbyterian minister: Sylvester Graham, who first lectured on the virtues of vegetarianism during the 1820s. (He is remembered as the namesake of the graham cracker.) It really got going in 1863 when Ellen White, a leader of several hundred Christians who called themselves the Seventh-day Adventists, said that God had revealed to her that “Grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables constitute the diet chosen for us by our Creator.” The Adventists became vegetarians, and by the turn of the century, two members, cereal moguls John Harvey Kellogg and C.W. Post (who once marketed cornflakes as “Elijah’s Manna”), had laid the groundwork for the U.S. health-food industry. According to William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi—authors of Bibliography of Soy Sprouts: 655 References From 3rd Century A.D. to 1991, among other soy-based titles —the Adventists popularized soymilk, soy cheese, and meat substitutes made from spun soy fibers. They also founded Worthington Foods, now America’s largest manufacturer of veggie burgers and fake meat.
Thus was born a new American tradition: start a religion, start a restaurant — or better, a chain. Whatever can be said about these new sects’ theology, the food was often superb:
Still, spiritual movements exerted a culinary influence. In 1930s San Francisco, a Seventh-day Adventist named Ella Brodersen ran what might have been the city’s first vegetarian restaurant, the Health Way Cafeteria. Near Santa Barbara, Alan Hooker, who had moved to the town of Ojai to be near his guru, Yogi Krishnamurti, opened the Ranch House restaurant in 1956—which would lead some people to call him “the grandfather of California cuisine,” a precursor to famous chefs such as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. Los Angeles became home to yoga pioneer Paramahansa Yogananda. As Hollywood chef Akasha Richmond put it, “by the 1950s, it was the Mushroom Burger, served at Yogananda’s SFR India Café, that made the veggie burger popular in Hollywood.” Then came the California New Age food explosion—and Jim Baker.
Jim Baker, a.k.a. Father YodBaker’s story is a perfect illustration of the co-evolution of health food and spirituality. An ex-Marine known to have killed assailants with single judo chops to the neck, he moved to Hollywood after World War II to audition for the role of Tarzan. He didn’t get the part, and in 1957 he opened an upscale organic restaurant on Sunset Boulevard called the Aware Inn, which was an instant hit with the entertainment elite: “Far more,” one fan later wrote, “than a plateful of forlorn sprouts atop sandpaper bread.” Vogue, in 1971, called it “first and best-known of the health-food restaurants in Los Angeles.” By then, Baker had opened several other successful restaurants, most notably one called The Source, which was featured in Annie Hall (Woody Allen, dining with Diane Keaton, orders “the alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast”). Various Aware Inn alumni established their own cafes, making Baker probably the most important health-food restaurateur in what had for decades been the health-food capital of the United States.
During this same period, Baker had also become a disciple of Yogi Tea entrepreneur Yogi Bhajan, renamed himself “Father Yod” (he eventually went by “YaHoWha,” Jehovah), and begun wearing white robes and grooming himself in a style that brought to mind, in the words of former Tonight Show host Steve Allen, “Michelangelo’s version of God the Father.” “Father,” as he was known, acquired dozens of devotees and 14 “spiritual wives,” lived with his followers (the Source Family) in an incense-perfumed mansion in the Hollywood Hills, and became lead singer of his commune’s influential psychedelic rock band.
Baker’s years of selling what the Los Angeles Times identified as “probably the best fresh juices on the planet” came to an end in 1974, when one of the commune’s children nearly died from an untreated staph infection and emergency-room personnel contacted the authorities. Baker panicked, sold the restaurants, and moved the group to Hawaii. Soon after, the group took up hang-gliding, allegedly inspired by a reference in the Kabbalah to a “divine chariot,” and Baker, despite his lack of adventure-sports experience, attempted an ambitious flight. He plunged to his death, a modern-day Icarus.
Fromson goes on to propose some practical reasons why leaders of religious sects get into the restaurant business, one being that good food tends to take the edge off interfaith controversy. Who knows? He could be right. If some priest in first-century Jerusalem had open a chain called Saduseafood, the Romans might have left an extra wall standing.
For a grimly hilarious treatment of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the Corn Flakes king, and his famous sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan, I recommend T.C. Boyle’s Road to Wellville. Yes, it was made into a movie — a lousy movie.