L.A. Has Been Eating Raw Vegan Food Since 1918, Thanks to This Communist, Feminist Angeleno
Bowl of Soul at Sage Vegan Bistro
The unfired diet is truly attractive,
Is moral, aesthetic, delicious and good.
And further than this, it is more than preventative —
It cures the diseases that come from cooked food.
—Raw Food Dining Room advertisement
Today in Los Angeles, you cannot drive a mile without seeing a new vegan raw juice bar. Inside you will undoubtedly find a variety of green concoctions made palatable with copious amounts of apple juice, and seed and nut bars sweetened with agave and dried fruit. While this may seem like a thoroughly new eating trend, it is not. The mother of raw vegan dining arrived in L.A. 100 years ago, ready to start a raw food revolution. And she was much more hard-core than any modern-day goji berry enthusiast could ever imagine.
Vera Richter’s life before she came to L.A. is a bit of a mystery. She was born in Pennsylvania in 1884. At some point, she married Dr. John T. Richter, a naturopathic physician, who was two decades her senior. By 1917, they had arrived in Los Angeles, and soon opened their first restaurant, the Raw Food Dining Room, at 640 S. Olive St. Considered by many to be the first raw vegan restaurant in the world, it was an anomaly in a meat-and-cheese era when, according to the celebrity naturopath (and owner of the famed Neutra-designed Lovell Health House) Phillip Lovell, a salad consisted of “tomatoes and lettuce ably disguised by mayonnaise or vinegar French dressing.”
The couple advertised the Raw Food Dining Room as the only restaurant in L.A. serving no salt, sugar or vinegar. Their menu included health drinks, uncooked soups, fruit, flower and vegetable salads, unbaked breads, and pies and cakes baked only by the California sun. Not only was their revolutionary cookless cuisine “all very delicious to the un-perverted taste,” their politics were also unabashedly revolutionary. For a 1919 review of their “restauraw,” a critic for the Los Angeles Times visited the dining room, where Hawaiian music was dispensed by a “squeazy phonograph in the hall:”
At this unique café, at which coffee is never served, the patron is provided with uncooked soup, fruit and flower salads, unbaked brown bread and unfired pie … between mouthfuls, [one] has time to glance about him and observe the mural decorations. On one is a large photograph of President Wilson, while on the opposite side of the room is a picture of Eugene V. Debs. ... Above the haloed head of Debs is a copy of the “constitution” of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic. … On another wall is a leaflet, entitled “The Truth About Russia” … next to this revelation is the statement that “raw food, plus sunshine, air and exercise promotes physical, moral, mental and spiritual health.”
The critic was unimpressed, stating: “If you go there once, you’ll swear you enjoy it because the experience is new — and you will probably go back two or three times to prove to yourself and to the proprietor that your taste is not perverted.” Despite the reviewer’s reservations, the Richters developed quite a following. By the mid-1920s they had moved, opening a handful of new restaurants, including ones at 833 Olive St. and 209 S. Hill St. They renamed their small chain of “live food cafeterias” Eutropheon, which they claimed was Greek for “uncooked” or “good nourishment.”
Pumpkin gnocchi, watercress and apple cider at M.A.K.E.
The two downtown Eutropheons became a hotbed of new holistic ideas during the 1920s and ’30s, the undisputed “habitat of the raw food brigade.” Dr. Richter gave free weekly lectures on health and nutrition, while forward-thinking celebrities such as Greta Garbo munched on house specialties such as cereal soup and celery cream pie. Phillip Lovell ate at Eutropheon every day for lunch, and frequently praised Vera and John in his popular “Care of the Body” column for the Los Angeles Times. Vera occasionally wrote for Lovell’s column. In her writings, she displayed a fierce intellect and a palatable disdain for cooked foods, which she believed resulted in “body-clogging and sickness:”
Can you visualize a master of wisdom bending over a cook’s stove, flavoring this, stirring that, making himself trouble, and raising much dust, and to what end? There is death in the pot. In a daily newspaper appeared a recipe for fried peaches. What a crime. A peach, beautiful and perfect in itself, with its organic qualities for man’s refreshment, must be submitted to the destroying fire in order to gratify perverted taste. Nor was this enough, a complicated sauce must be prepared and served on the fruit to still further disguise its flavor.
An unabashed early feminist, Vera also believed that by adopting a healthy, raw vegan diet, women could claim their rightful position in the world, instead of spending their days chained to the stove participating in “the black art of cooking”:
Woman, in order to occupy her destined place in the scheme of things, must be physically strong and economically independent. Since her earning power is, to a great extent, gauged by her physical fitness, it is vital that she possess health.
Vera’s formula for women’s health and happiness still resonates today (except for the mending!):
Let her first get acquainted with Dr. Air, pure and fresh. It will oxidize and cremate much of the waste matter in the body caused by eating dead food. In our climate, it is often practicable to eat meals out of doors. Take the book or mending out on the porch. It is easy to slip on a sweater if a little cool. Then try Dr. Light (and this means exposing the nude body to the rays of the sun in 15- or 20-minute periods) thus drawing the poisons to the surface. Then Dr. Water, applied internally and externally, will carry off the poisons from the body. Dr. Fruit and the juices aid in depuration. Dr. Vegetable and juices are rich in building elements (especially those which grow in and next to the earth, being the richest in earth salts). Dr. Exercise will improve the circulation and promote deep breathing.
In the midst of the superficial, highly styled Roaring Twenties, Vera decried women’s use of poisonous makeup and high heels. “Woman has thrown off some of the shackles of her ancestors, such as corsets, hoopskirts, bustles, etc.” she wrote. “She still clings to such unnecessary evils as furs, high-heeled shoes, face powders, rouge, etc.” If women must artificially enhance themselves, Vera suggested using crushed strawberries as a natural rouge, a diet of beets and carrots for more luscious hair, and a cheesecloth filled with flaked oats to replace face powder.
Tree nut cheeses at M.A.K.E.
In 1925, Vera self-published the world’s first raw vegan cookbook, called Mrs. Richter’s Cook-less Cookbook. “Those who are interested in raw food preparation will also find an immense number of valuable ideas,” Lovell wrote in his review of the book for the Los Angeles Times, “which will help toward making raw food a permanent feature of diet. For the housewife preparing the menus, this book is a symposium of menus and formulas that is invaluable.”
Recently republished as Vintage Vegan, Vera’s cookbook offers a fascinating glimpse into a raw food pioneer’s psyche. She laments America’s culinary practices, comparing meat-eating to cannibalism. She also points to scientific discoveries as proof that consuming raw food is the only way to enjoy all the nutrients found in nature:
Take, for instance, the iron so much in demand for making good red blood. Chemists tell us that spinach is rich in iron, so we proceed to cook the spinach, and by so doing completely change the chemistry of that vegetable until it is doubtful if it is even ordinarily wholesome. The fresh, crisp leaves were analyzed by the chemist, and not the sodden, bitter mass that we have when it is cooked. Under the process of cooking, the vitamins, so necessary to vigorous health, take wings and flee, and the life-giving properties of cooked food are greatly diminished thereby.
For all her dogmatic pronouncements, Vera understood that raw eating was not a miracle. “There are no miracles in nature,” she wrote. She believed it would take time for the body to heal and adjust to her new, revolutionary way of eating, and that a healthy lifestyle included more than just diet. However, she held fast to her belief that “nature’s food brings nature’s mood,” and that, eventually, those who followed her advice would reap the benefits:
An alert, clear-headed, springy feeling is also the reward of the followers of nature’s diet, and since one cannot readily over-eat, the super-abundant fat cells that make life a burden and induce disease need not be feared. Unfired food in proper combination, together with sunshine, fresh air, exercise, and sleep, will promote and maintain health, physical. mental, moral and spiritual.
Today, the cookbook’s recipes seem delightfully simple, and sometimes a bit bland, with very little seasoning used. Her French dressing (as made at the Eutropheon) consists of only three tablespoons of corn or saffron oil, one tablespoon of fresh lemon juice and one teaspoonful of honey (replaced with coconut nectar in Vintage Vegan). Also included are recipes for an avocado and orange salad, a rhubarb tonic drink, fig and nut spread, an “energizing flax seed loaf,” and a variety of pies — including a banana pie featuring only bananas, nuts and honey. Vera’s pies seem to have been standouts, with Lovell singling them out for special praise. ”Let me tell you, they are delicious, for there is scarcely one that I have not tried,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
By the late 1920s, the Richters and their philosophies had begun to gain more mainstream respect. They also expanded — at one point, a downtown Eutropheon could seat around 350 people. Eutropheons reportedly sprung up in Long Beach and San Francisco. No doubt California, the land of abundant year-round produce and transplanted health seekers and free thinkers, was the ideal place for the couple to blossom.
In 1927, famed L.A. Times columnist Lee Shippey visited a Eutropheon, and his take, while humorous, was much more enlightened than his colleague’s eight years before:
The Eutropheon dining rooms serve all sorts of fresh and sun-dried fruits and vegetables and, of course, being thoroughly American, they serve pies. But they are uncooked pies. That is, the crust is sunbaked and the fruit filling is of dried or fresh crushed fruits. These restaurants also, of course, serve a great many nuts. But most of the diners we saw looked like extra-intelligent people.
The Richters also seem to have ceased the overt political propaganda at their later restaurants, although they continued to “educate” their guests with playful sayings plastered all over the walls:
When liver and kidneys are way out of step, tomatoes and parsley will furnish the peps.
Freshy greens served with nuts once a day will keep all disease and dopers away.
You ate yourself sick on cooked food you desired; now eat yourself well on the food that’s unfired.
The downtown Eutropheons appear to have been opened until the late 1930s, when the Richters either sold or closed them. John died in 1949. What Vera did for the rest of her life is not known. She died in 1960 and is buried next to John at Forest Lawn. But her pioneering beliefs and punny attitude live on in every jar of almond butter or eggless mayo, in every handmade carob truffle and pressed juice cleanse, whether their creators know it or not. For in Vera’s words:
Nature’s food brings nature’s mood;
Soul, mind, blood are cleansed, made good.
Your outlook on life, disposition and moods,
Are brighter and happier when you eat natural foods.
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