How Nudist Vegans Sparked a Jazz Classic … and a Movement
Kristina GaddyOctober 13, 2019
Mrs. Richter’s cookbook isn’t just about food. For Beauty Salad I, she recommends tender asparagus tips with mint sauce, not because it tastes good but because it will “induce light perspiration, aiding circulation and clearing the complexion.” In fact, all of Vera Richter’s recipes were about a way of life. “Food is the answer to our problem to have a sound mind in a sound body,” she wrote in the cookbook’s opening. She was one of the essential figures of the Los Angeles healthy living scene, opening a chain of famous raw vegan restaurants alongside her husband, John T. Richter.
They might have fit the perfect hippie image, only this was 50 years before the word entered the lexicon. But even the earliest hippies would be influenced by the Richters and their desire to promote the tenants of the German Lebensreform movement.
Vera was born Verna May Weitzel to German parents in Pennsylvania. In 1903, at age 18, she graduated from the Butler Business College and accepted a job as a stenographer in Pittsburgh. By 1910, she’d moved to Los Angeles, where she met John. John had arrived in LA after working as a doctor of chiropractic and naturopathic medicine in the Midwest. They married, and perhaps it was Vera’s business acumen that got their restaurant, Eutropheon, started. However, it was John’s commitment to the ideas of Lebensreform, or life reform, that inspired the raw vegan cuisine they served.
John’s father, a German immigrant and pharmacist, had wanted him to be a doctor, but while studying at Rush Medical College in Chicago, John became more interested in natural methods of healing, including movement cures and the Battle Creek diet, a cooked vegetarian regime developed by John Harvey Kellogg to promote energy and general well-being. John saw great results with patients and even followed the diet himself, but he still felt a “general lack of energy.” That was when he learned about Dr. Benedict Lust and his uncooked food diet in a naturopathic magazine.
John Richter became a convert to a raw, vegan diet as a way to cure his ailments, which included dizziness, kidney problems and a habit of falling asleep while trying to give medical advice.
Lust created the cohesive concept of natural healing he called naturopathic medicine. “His natural healing methods used water, homeopathy, light, chiropractic adjustments, dietetic advice, exercise, baths and massage for health restoration and preservation,” writes Susan Cayleff in Nature’s Path: A History of Naturopathic Healing in America. Lust opened a health food store in New York and founded health resorts.
In Germany, where Lust first encountered natural healing, the Lebensreform movement had been popular since the mid-1800s as a way of countering industrialization. Those who followed the life reform principles subscribed to a meat-free, alcohol-free diet, usually combined with nudism, which allowed the body to get more sun and air. “The promises of the life reform movement were a way to offset the ‘degeneration’ and the degradation that comes along with modern life, big cities, industrialization,” says Peter Staudenmaier, associate professor of history at Marquette University.
John Richter became a convert to a raw, vegan diet as a way to cure his ailments, which included dizziness, kidney problems and a habit of falling asleep while trying to give medical advice.In 1917, John and Vera opened a restaurant in LA that served only “live foods,” promising to “cure the diseases that come from cooked foods.” The name Eutropheon came from George Drews, a friend of John’s and a raw food advocate, who made up the word to mean a raw food restaurant.
Soon, the Richters had multiple locations in LA. Vera managed the restaurants and probably developed many of the recipes for dishes served, which she then compiled into her cookbook, Mrs. Richter’s Cook-Less Cookbook. One writer in the Los Angeles Times commented on the “scores of tasty salad combinations … dozens of fruit concoctions, nut mixtures, grain mixtures, raw soups, raw pies, raw cakes, raw confections …” at the restaurant.
John would give lectures at the restaurant too, not only on diet but also general wellness, exercise and illnesses, topics that often touched on proper bowel movements. The restaurants and lifestyle they promoted became so well-known that LA Times columnist Lee Shippey lampooned restaurant-goers with the name “Trophers” and wrote, “They are so eager to spread their gospel that they don’t even charge admission” for John’s lectures.
They created a cultlike following. At their restaurants, the Richters hired others who believed in and would proselytize the natural-living message. This included the Nature Boys, a group of young men who lived outside in Los Angeles in caves and canyons. They grew their hair long and basked naked in the California sun. Some worked or played music at the Richters’ restaurants, and Vera’s food and John’s lectures influenced their diets and lifestyle. One of them, Eden Ahbez, would go on to write the famous song “Nature Boy” and sell it to Nat King Cole. Another, California hippie Robert Bootzin, who went by Gypsy Boots, opened a health food store in 1958 and was one of the early proponents of the smoothie.
While the Nature Boys and other Californians used the ideals of back-to-the-land ethos to pave the way for hippies, in Germany the Lebensreform movement continued as well, but the idea that it was “specifically German” led to a connection between the holistic movement and nationalism, says Staudenmaier. “They didn’t just see it metaphorically,” he says — they believed this holistic health approach should be part of the German nationalist ideology. Early members of the Nazi Party like Hanns Georg Müller were part of the Lebensreform movement and brought these ideals into the Third Reich. Müller played a role in the Nazi Party’s department of public health, while the Reich Committee for a New German Art of Healing focused on alternative healing methods and included doctors of homeopathic and naturopathic medicine.
The Eutropheons lasted until the 1940s, not quite long enough to see the hippie era, but people still recognize their role as trailblazing vegans. Vera’s 1926 cookbook was recently republished as Vintage Vegan: Recipes From Inside the World’s First Vegan Restaurant, as the Eutropheon claims to be the world’s first vegan restaurant — something LA likes to add to its bona fides as the health food capital of the world.
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