Many of the innovations in food that have been introduced by new religious movements (NRMs) have become so much a part of mainstream America that they are not easily recognized, according to University of Oregon sociologist Marion Goldman.
In presenting preliminary results from her study at the recent meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis, Goldman said that only a few NRM have shared their beliefs and practices through food. American Sikhs in the Happy, Healthy, Holy movement spread their beliefs on tea and cereal boxes through Golden Temple Foods, as well as marketing organic granola and inventing Kettle Chips as a healthy alternative to other brands of potato chips.
In contrast, most of the mid-priced sushi consumed in the U.S. comes by means of True World Foods’ fishing fleets, operated by the Unification Church; the profits from this enterprise has helped sustain the church as membership has declined. NRMs operating restaurants have been less common, but there have been some successful attempts. Greens Restaurant founded by San Francisco’s Zen Center is said to have brought vegetarian food from health food stores to establish it as a cuisine in the U.S.
Goldman finds that most of the restaurants of NRMs have survived for less than a decade. The most important exception among contemporary NRMs is Supreme Master Ching Hai’s worldwide chain of about 200 Loving Hut Cafes, with 40 in the U.S. The cafes, which sell well-priced vegan dishes, are run by Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans who join together to practice meditation on “inner light” and sound known as the Quan Yin Method founded by the Vietnamese spiritual leader.
The menus and also the videos that constantly run in the cafes spread a “soft version” of the group’s teachings to attract a more diverse following. Each café functions as both an outreach center and source of revenue, according to Goldman. She concludes that even when the food that is invented, marketed and served by NRM devotees blends into the mainstream and loses its spiritual message, such efforts generate significant solidarity and commitment among members to their groups.