When Health Food Was a Cult
I’ll cop to the misuse: Occasionally, the phrase “like a cult” has passed my lips when talking about certain diet fads. The Paleo diet, at its most dogmatic, may approach something cult-like, but it isn’t an out-and-out Helter Skelter situation.
There was at time and place, however, when a certain brand of healthy eating and a real-life cult—complete with white-bearded polygamist leader—were two overlapping circles on the same Venn diagram. The place was (where else?) Los Angeles—specifically The Source restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, the first successful forbearer of every lunch spot that serves brown-rice bowls and kale salad from Venice to Echo Park. Its owner, Jim Baker, was just a World War II vet from Cincinnati when he opened The Source in 1969. Four years later, he was not only heading up a hugely successful restaurant, but, in the guise of Father Yod, acting as the figurehead of a burgeoning cult: The Source Family.
In a New York Times story about John Schlesinger’s film adaptation of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust—which is as much about the “commercialized vice” of 1970s Hollywood as the production itself—Tom Buckley described visiting the cult restaurant:
One of the robe-wearing sects, which calls itself “The Religion of Ten,” operates a natural-foods restaurant, The Source, on Sunset Boulevard. Seeking God through whole grains and, I imagine, hallucinogenic drugs has an almost old-fashioned ring to it these days, like a vicar’s tea party. I went there one afternoon, drank a protein-plus cocktail, a noxious beverage similar to an Orange Julius but costing three times as much, and asked a bearded votary who said his name was Prometheus to expound the tenets of the faith.
The cult is the subject of a new documentary, based on the 2007 book The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13, and the Source Family, written by one of Yod’s spiritual wives, Isis Aquarian. And judging by the trailer for The Source Family, which is now available on iTunes, it’s a movie that’s far more about spiritual sex, hallucinogenic drugs and psych rock—not the story of a restaurant. But without The Source, there would not have been a Source Family.
Father Yod supported more than 100 Family members, who all lived in a mansion up Nichols Canyon, above Hollywood Boulevard. And his was not an ascetic cult. Fashion may have tended to flowing robes, and sleeping quarters, frequently described as cubbyholes, were by no means luxurious. But there were Rolls Royce’s. And while celebrities did frequent the restaurant—Warren Beatty was a fan—the money didn’t come from that tried-and-true cult-funding source: wealthy members. In an interview with Nothing Major, co-director Maria Demopoulos said it all came from the restaurant.
It was the most profitable vegetarian restaurant in the country. They shared their resources, they all lived together. They weren’t getting paid, but they were sharing all the wealth of the restaurant. It was a hugely successful business venture and it sustained them. They were getting food from local farmers, they had an abundance of raw organic food and that allowed them a lifestyle.
So what was the proverbial Kool-Aid? When Alvy Singer and Annie Hall visit the restaurant in the 1977 film, Woody Allen’s character tells the waitress, “I’ll have the alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast.”
Allen’s punchline of a lunch is nowhere to be found on the menu featured in the Los Angeles Public Library’s extensive menu archives. If you grew up in a household with vegetarian parents who could’ve been consenting adults at Woodstock or been in a pre-Hale Bopp cult (like yours truly), the first-generation vegetarian cooking will ring familiar. The Source served up Moosewood Cookbook-type fare: Eggplant cooked in tomato sauce with brown rice, cheese-and-walnut loaf topped with melted cheddar, vegetable pilaf. Eggs and cheese abound, and non-vegetarian tuna and chicken salads graced the sandwich menu. The only thing that initially screams “cult” is the Magic Mushrooms—which turns out to be a decidedly unhallucinogenic combination of mushrooms, spinach and onions cooked in sesame oil and topped with “rennetless cheddar cheese, heated and delicately spiced with tamari sauce.” It’s served with cottage cheese.