Food writer Christina Ward spent summers four hours north of Chicago attending “kid revivals” in rural Jackson County, Wisconsin, in the ’70s, which involved bussing a group of kids to a field for a day of religious activities. “Right away, I noticed the idea of ‘reward and withhold,’” she recalls. “If you learned your verses, if you could win the little trivia contest, you got a candy bar or ice cream. The idea that we can train humans in almost the same way we train dogs and rats really stuck with me.”
Those experiences helped Ward notice that unsuspecting snacks are surrounded by foods started by religious organizations: Your corner store might have Little Debbie snacks and Kellogg’s cereals (both rooted in Seventh-day Adventism) while your Whole Foods offers Yogi Tea (started by Yogi Bhajan, a once-revered yoga figure who abused his students) and Tofurky (founded on a commune). This intersection of religious movements and food is the topic of Ward’s newest book, Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat.
Her book covers dozens of different organizations, from religions like Nation of Islam and Seventh-day Adventists, to groups like Heaven’s Gate, and communes like the Bishop Hill Colony in Illinois. She explores the organizations’ culinary cultures and influences, featuring 75 recipes — you too can make Chicago-based Mazdaznan’s “Dough Gods” or Rajneeshee mushroom pierogies prepared by the perpetrators of the infamous 1984 salad bar food poisoning attack.
Ahead of her Friday, October 13, appearance at Quimby’s Bookstore in Wicker Park, Ward spoke with Pearse Anderson about her Wisconsin upbringing, scary recipe testing, and the connections between Chicago religious movements and grocers.
Eater Chicago: If we wanted to host an event based on recipes from the book, what recipes would you recommend readers prepare?
Christina Ward: If you want to go macabre, you could make a salad dressing from Heaven’s Gate. One that rated well amongst recipe testers was “Ron’s Motherfucker Beans”; it’s a great party dish with a great story behind it. For dessert, the Bishop Hill Community, a Northern Illinois religious commune, has cardamom horns that would be very delicious.
You recipe tested this book earlier in the pandemic with a small group of friends. What was that experience like, and how did the testers react to the food?
A few of my recipe testers recently reiterated that it was such a great communal experience when everyone was feeling isolated. We created this little group and everybody could share notes and talk about and laugh about it. Folks never think of themselves as joining a cult, and cults are on a spectrum: Some of the groups are really benign, some are not. We like to think of ourselves as a gentle benign communal cult, testing out these recipes. Some were really delicious, and some were so terrible I didn’t include them in the book.
What recipes were too terrible to include?
One that really sticks out is the True Light Beavers’ mock liver pate. It was mushrooms, I’m a vegetarian, so I’m like “Oh, that could be great.” I don’t know what happened. It had that uncanny Bermuda Triangle of terribleness: really weird texture; strange, acidic, dirty taste; and a gray cat-vomit color.
Mazdaznan, a neo-Zoroastrian sect headquartered in 1900s Chicago, had food-based cures, diet books, and a rigid yearly calendar of eating. You write that the sect’s founder made several appearances in front of the Chicago circuit courts for child abuse because of the intensity of Mazdaznan’s diet. Could you describe more of this sect’s diet culture and legal troubles?
Mazdaznan had one of the most highly restricted food cultures. They had light foods (foods that grew above ground), dark foods (foods that grew below ground) and started to incorporate nascent nutrition science of the era. Broadly speaking, they mandated a fast when someone joined, to check: “Can people do this? Are they willing to do this?” The fasting and more restrictions increased the more you ascended their hierarchy, almost like a multilevel marketing scheme. They got sued many times because they were asking children to follow this very extreme type of diet and many times guardians or ex-husbands had concerns that the child was being malnourished.
What were the goals of these lawsuits, to regain custody?
Yes, and the motivating factor was child protection. Mazdaznan lost every case.
How did religious movements like the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam help shape grocery stores and their offerings in the South Side of Chicago?
The Nation of Islam had many grocery stores, branded “Your Super Market,” where they followed the very specific rules established by Elijah Muhammad in his book How to Eat to Live. One of the major tenets of Nation of Islam cuisine is a rejection of foods associated with the enslavement period. So there are specific beans you can and cannot eat, and no red meat. When those grocery stores were thriving, the [Nation of Islam] wanted to own all the means of production, and so they started a farm in northern Georgia to ship produce north to Chicago. There were grocery stores in Detroit too, but it didn’t quite take off. Elijah Muhammad put forth a five-year comprehensive economic plan to develop food sovereignty as a component of economic sovereignty for all Black people, and this was part of it.
Your book covers the Nation of Islam’s inroads into fish importing through the formation of Peruvian business partnerships and sardine companies. At one point the Nation of Islam became the largest importer and distributor of whitefish. Were there other grocery store logistics they were able to vertically integrate?
It’s one thing if you’re gonna grow your food, but you need to make sure that it’s getting somewhere safely and timely. In the ’40s and ’50s, there was a fair amount of corruption in transportation systems, and so the Nation of Islam ensured they were training truck drivers and helping them purchase trucks. They had 100 percent control over their own food supply.
Food delivery truck driving became a source of revenue. Today, the Nation of Islam works directly with the Moonies, the Unification Church, who are one of the largest providers of sushi fish in the world. Many current Nation of Islam members are longshoremen working to offload boats onto trucks or driving the trucks themselves. They see themselves as kindred spirits in the sense that they have a high moral standard for their behavior and for their employees. They found a symbiotic relationship within the food that serves both [organizations’] needs.
What interested you about the food sovereignty platforms of organizations like the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam?
I’m fascinated by the connectivity between that idea of self-sufficiency and how it was very much a reaction to not just enslavement, but also Jim Crow laws.
It’s one thing for white organizations to fear something that they believe is coming, versus a lot of the Black-oriented religious movements that were reacting to an actual state of being that they were culturally experiencing. It’s a very different perspective and a very different reason to have a “back to the land” movement.
There’s a lot of Midwestern infrastructure and buildings that housed and helped religious movements and secret societies, from Chicagoland’s three Shriner Temples, Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, and Jesus People USA, a 200-person commune here in Uptown. What food infrastructure or establishments still remain in this region, whether that’s restaurants or back-to-the-land farms?
A lot of the Chicago-based organizations are still around in one form or another. The Nation of Islam still has a large presence, and Moorish Science has their headquarters on South Wabash Avenue. Adidam has old headquarters on West Fullerton that still has open houses, and sells books, and has classes. There’s also these wonderful remnants of the businesses established during like the heyday of the late ’60s, early ’70s, especially with the Nation of Islam and their focus on food sovereignty: I’m thinking of the Nation of Islam-inspired bakeries, like Supreme Bean Pie on Stony Island, or Imani’s Bean Pie on 75th.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.