Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Health food and religious cults

By the time I dined with Chinmoy, I'd spent months eating at restaurants run by fringe religious movements, often referred to as "cults," and trying to figure out why so many sects have opened shrines to a single deity: health food. ...

In addition to restaurants, many fringe groups own natural-foods stores or manufacture products like Yogi Tea, invented by Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization founder Yogi Bhajan. Here's a challenge: Name an infamous sect or "cult" that has never operated some sort of restaurant or natural-foods store. Most of them—the Church of Scientology, Aum Shinrikyo, the Branch Davidians, the Mormon Fundamentalists, even Jim Jones' People's Temple—have. The question is: Why? ...

One reason small religious groups tend to serve health food is that they helped invent it. In fact, they arguably launched the whole movement. ...

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 CafĂ©, that made the veggie burger popular in Hollywood." ...

The 1974 edition of the Spiritual Community Guide, "The Yellow Pages of the New Age Movement," listed 2,470 addresses throughout the country. ... 31.2 percent of the total, were health-food stores or restaurants. ...

[U]nlike large religions, which can sustain themselves with tithes and donations, smaller groups usually have to generate revenue through actual businesses—and the restaurant industry has low barriers to entry.
--Daniel Fromson, Slate, on health food's cult origins. See also my previous post on food and morality.

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