Near the buffet at Annam Brahma (Sanskrit for "food is God"), a white-robed Bengali man played the flute on a muted TV. As I sat down to eat vegetarian curries and a fresh, crunchy salad, I noticed his face on the back of my waiter's white hoodie. Opposite my table, there he was again: hoisting a barbell that was mostly weight and not much bar. The photo's caption: "Sri Chinmoy lifts 3½ tons with one arm at the age of 55." A peace-and-love-preaching guru, Chinmoy died in 2007, but virtually every patch of the airy natural-foods restaurant in Queens, N.Y., was covered with his image, his books, or his artwork. There was even a colorful doodle on my mug of chai—along with the words smiles and dreams and his looping signature.
Annam Brahma is one of about 20 soy-and-veggie joints operated by Chinmoy's followers, and it is, undoubtedly, strange. But its strangeness is surprisingly common. 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.
A 15-minute walk from my house in D.C. is Soul Vegetarian Cafe and Exodus Carryout, part of a mini-chain stretching from Tel Aviv to Atlanta. African-American polygamists who consider themselves the real Jews served me vegan mac-and-cheese and a vegetable croquette on a thick whole-wheat bun, the Moses Burger. In upstate New York, a competing chosen people, the hippie-ish "Jesus People" known as the Twelve Tribes, sold me a whole-grain waffle drowned in blueberry sauce and whipped cream. (They also have restaurants in Massachusetts, Colorado, Tennessee, and other states.) Two blocks from Manhattan's Penn Station, I ate vegan dumplings and nutty seaweed salad while watching Supreme Master TV, the 24-hour satellite network of Supreme Master Ching Hai, proprietress of, at latest count, 201 Loving Hut restaurants in 29 countries. And twice—while on vacation in Rome and later in Brooklyn—I tried to dine with Hare Krishnas. If you want to sample Lord Krishna's vegan meatballs, call in advance: Odd hours seem to be the norm at his hundred or so temple/cafes worldwide.
If, however, you don't call and a saffron-robed devotee with white face paint turns you away, as happened to me, you can always order organic wheatgrass or raw cacao powder from Mr. Wisdom, a Los Angeles-based Krishna (and health-food retailer) who ships nationwide. 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?
There appears to be no thorough chronicle of the cosmic cookery trend (not to be confused with Cosmic Cookery, a collection of 190 "out of this world" vegetarian recipes published during the '70s by the UFO-worshipping One World Family). But countless Google Books searches and a couple of visits to the Library of Congress helped me piece together an initial explanation. One reason small religious groups tend to serve health food is that they helped invent it. In fact, they arguably launched the whole movement.
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.
Initially, the emerging science of nutrition, more than spirituality, spread the good word about health food to the general population. Particularly in Southern California—which Shurtleff and Aoyagi identify as the health-food movement's most important early hub—adults embraced "living foods" with the goal of retaining a youthful vitality, inspired by best-sellers such as Gayelord Hauser's Look Younger, Live Longer. From the 1930s to the 1950s, California gave America everything from the grapefruit diet to the late fitness guru Jack LaLanne. Vitamins appeared on a U.S. health-food store shelf for the first time in San Diego—and they began spreading nationwide thanks to the groundbreaking research and vitamin evangelism of Henry Borsook, a Caltech biochemist.
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.
Baker'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.
But the connection between spirituality and health food was secure. As a 1971 L.A. Times article titled "Yin and Yang a la Carte" noted, "A new movement/religion unites both hippies and straights in holy war against adulterated foods." While Baker's restaurants were thriving during the early '70s, so were Yogi Bhajan's own Golden Temple Conscious Cookeries (which helped popularize chai), the One World Family's natural-foods emporium in Berkeley (possibly the largest in California), the Tennessee spiritual commune The Farm (responsible for the widespread introduction of tempeh), Zen-inspired macrobiotic restaurants from coast to coast ("the single most important force in introducing miso to America," write Shurtleff and Aoyagi), and other businesses that had also been inspired by America's spiritual awakening. The 1974 edition of the Spiritual Community Guide, "The Yellow Pages of the New Age Movement," listed 2,470 addresses throughout the country. According to sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, 54.9 percent of them were spiritual centers or communities, often "the local offices of cult movements" or "the ashrams of various small cults." Almost as common, with 31.2 percent of the total, were health-food stores or restaurants.
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.
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.
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.