Cosmic cookery: How fringe religious groups helped launch the health-food movement.

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 1 2011 7:49 AM

Where Food Is God

How fringe religious groups helped launch the healthy eating movement.

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So it seems that spirituality helped beget health food. But tracking the Yodification of American cuisine doesn't answer a trickier question: If you are the leader of a small religious sect, why open a restaurant or health-food store instead of something else? Why not support your flock some other way?

Reason No. 1: unlike 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. "Every group needs an economic base, and restaurants I think are popular because some of the groups could start coffeehouses pretty easily," said David Bromley, a sociologist who has studied the economic strategies of new religious movements. One possibility, he added, is that because sects tend to consume natural foods themselves, during the '60s and '70s, it was a logical next step for them to address their funding needs by capitalizing on the public's hunger for products the devotees already knew well. "Vegetarian food became more popular. Asian food became more popular. That made it a kind of commonsensical way to solve that problem."

Uncontroversial businesses like restaurants also help spiritual groups avoid persecution. Consider the case of the Hare Krishnas, whose aggressive panhandling during the 1970s generated bad press. One 1976 AP article chronicled how Krishnas wearing Santa suits began competing with other Santas for holiday donations in Manhattan, harassing rivals and following passersby for as far as a block, demanding, "Ho, ho, ho. Don't you have anything for Santa?" The group ended the Santa turf wars soon after and invested in vegetarian cookery.

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The final reason is perhaps the most obvious: Sects open food businesses to attract new members. Religious sects are often missionary movements, but they tend to recruit indirectly, initially seeking to interest people not in membership but in obtaining goods or services. "Groups vary in terms of whether they use the food operations largely to support themselves or to demonstrate their lifestyle," Bromley told me. I didn't experience much proselytizing at the restaurants I visited—although when I asked a sari-clad waitress at Annam Brahma about her religion, she told me Sri Chinmoy used to say that "meditation is a road, and anyone can follow the road." One group that definitely uses food to woo potential devotees is the one that served me my waffle with blueberry sauce, the Twelve Tribes. The wife of the sect's founder once wrote the following about their first restaurant, the Yellow Deli: "This was really our motivation in opening a restaurant—that we could come into contact with the people and be able to show them through our lives … how wonderful it was to know God."

I must confess that at first the idea of eating at restaurants where waiters might be hoping to convert me seemed a little creepy. And since these places are run by groups that many people consider "cults," a quick Google search is practically guaranteed to turn up unappetizing allegations of misogyny, child abuse, homophobia, racism, brainwashed and unpaid staff, and so on.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Still, I think everyone should seek out a Moses Burger, some Supreme Master salad, or a similar dish at least once. In my experience, the servers are courteous, not glassy-eyed pamphlet-pushers, and the food does not disappoint: I've spent a couple of decades frequenting health-food stores and cafes, and I feel confident saying that religious restaurants rank among the best. The Supreme Master's dumplings were a little gluey, but the Twelve Tribes waffle deserves a place in a Breakfast Hall of Fame. Soul Vegetarian's vegan mac-and-cheese, topped with a crunchy layer of breadcrumbs, won me over even though soy cheese has always struck me as bleak and insincere.

Of course, the food itself is only part of the draw. Where else can your dinner companion be a peace-preaching weightlifter fueled by "inner strength" or a saffron-robed descendent of the Krishna Santas? It's like dining at the embassy of an unfamiliar country, or in California, 1971. It's eating as anthropology.

Daniel Fromson is an associate editor of the Atlantic.

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