Meet Father Yod, The Hippie Judo Killer Who Made Vegetarian Food Cool
Ask a hack comedian what they think of Los Angeles and it will take all of 10 seconds for them to start mocking the city's obsession with organic food. But clichés about cruelty-free avocado toast and raw kombucha have to start somewhere, and some of the credit for LA's transformation into a city perpetually searching for the next hip vegetable belongs to the Source. Opened in 1969 by James Edward Baker, the Source introduced celebrities like John Lennon and Marlon Brando to the trendy joys of chugging beet juice and forcing cilantro onto everything. Much of our modern obsession with vegetarian cuisine traces back to the restaurant … and its profits funded a horny jujitsuing killer's cult-y commune.
Baker was born in 1922 and served as a Marine in the Second World War, where Baker says he won the Silver Star but official government records disagree. He moved from Cincinnati to LA with dreams of becoming a stuntman, but instead ended up opening the Aware Inn with his wife, Elaine, in 1958. Baker had also fallen in with the Nature Boys who, despite sounding like a Ric Flair society, were beatniks who espoused raw veganism. Aware's organic menu—created well, well ahead of the organic food trend—reflected their influence, although fresh-squeezed carrot juice sat alongside organic takes on mainstream dishes, like beef stroganoff. Also, in pictures from the Aware Inn days, Baker looks like a regular dude and not, well, this:
So what changed? We should first mention that, in 1955, Baker kicked his neighbor so hard he died, after the man pulled a knife on him during an argument. The self-proclaimed jujutsu expert wasn't prosecuted, but he wasn't as lucky in 1963, when an irate man turned up at the inn and accused Baker of kissing his wife. Baker said they only had a "spiritual attraction" fueled by their mutual interest in philosophy and healthy eating, the husband somehow didn't buy that, and in the ensuing scuffle Baker turned the man's own gun on him. He was convicted of manslaughter and, while he only served five months, his marriage ended and Elaine got the inn.
Baker went full hippie upon release. He threw himself into '60s counterculture, studied esoterism, and became a follower of Yogi Bhajan, who helped popularize yoga in America, dubiously linked yoga to astrology, and was later accused of just, like, a ton of sexual abuse. He was also feeling the itch to open another restaurant, which he funded by charming $35,000 out of a random dude he met while hiking. Baker told his benefactor that his new establishment would be inspired by the "dietary wisdom found in the teachings of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Essene Gospels of Peace."
If you don't recall the part of the Bible where our Lord Christ gets really into sharing hummus hacks, that's because the Essene Gospels were a forgery by philosophy and psychology professor Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, who claimed he stumbled across ancient untranslated texts in the Vatican archives where Jesus preached vegetarianism. They were hilariously obvious fakes, but that didn't stop his "translations" from finding an audience among people who shared Szekely's passion for the raw food lifestyle and equated spirituality with believing everything in every book the crystal and incense store offered. A middle-aged Szekely would eventually pick up a 17-year-old at a vegetarianism conference and start a commune in California, but we were talking about Baker. Who, soon after opening the Source, began calling himself Father Yod.
The Source debuted with a hardcore raw vegan menu, but struggled until they compromised by welcoming dairy into their ranks. They even tried the radical concept of, gasp, cooking a few dishes. And it became a hit, receiving rave newspaper reviews and reams of celebrity guests. Rebranding as Yod helped with marketing, but he was serious when he began teaching Sunday morning meditation and philosophy classes at his restaurant. And then, naturally, he bought a white Rolls Royce and an LA mansion that eventually housed 150 members of the "Source Family." The restaurant supported the Family, and many members worked at the restaurant.
Baker transformed himself into a guru who looked like he was planning to betray Indiana Jones, but he was also a hardworking restaurateur, and that split personality was reflected in how the Source Family walked a fine line between cooperative commune and skeezy sex cult. Father Yod claimed 14 women, and his followers changed their names to noms de granola like Djin, Heaven, Sunflower, and Electron. But they never got too Manson-y; while Yod was a revered leader, people were free to come and go as they pleased (sometimes they left for ugly reasons; one man departed because the Family's teachings frowned on him giving medicine to his infant son). Mostly they did yoga, made art, smoked a ton of "the sacred herb," had the kind of obnoxious pseudo-philosophical conversations you'd expect from hippies who call weed "the sacred herb," and made music.
So much music.
Jesus Christ, they made a lot of music.
The Source Family's band, which churned through names like Ya Ho Wha 13, Yodship, and Fire Water Air, released nine albums, all of which sound like the kind of psychedelic rock you hear when a movie is about to launch into a terrible parody of the '60s. You can judge the merits of Penetration: An Aquarian Symphony for yourself, but today the band is most notable as an early gig for Family member Sky Saxon, who went on to form the Seeds. Who you haven't heard of, but they influenced a lot of punk bands who you have heard of. Unless you're a nerd.
But back to Father Yod who, by 1973, was facing police interest because of the commune's underage members, and pressure from neighbors who hadn't bought mansions to live next to a company of hippies. So Yod sold his restaurant, moved his harem and a few of his most devoted followers to Hawaii, changed his name to YaHoWha, and began wondering if he was God.
A commune leader taking his hardcore believers to a remote location while entertaining ideas of divinity isn't a move with a great track record, but any potential problems were abruptly dodged in 1975, when YaHoWha decided to teach himself how to hang glide. The 53-year-old leapt off a 1,300 foot cliff, crashed, and died nine hours later. The Family soon disbanded.
Recollections of Yod, aside from sounding like the title of a terrible Star Trek episode, are mixed. His second ex-wife called him a "a dirty old man on a lust trip," an understandable reaction when you get ditched for a harem of young women. Some Source Family alumni have fond memories, others recall struggles to readjust to society. Some still have a spiritual bent, others became straight-laced atheists. The co-director of an even-handed documentary about Source called them "a radical cultural experiment with a cultish aspect," but she also expressed a belief in magic, so form your own opinion. The Family were a spiritual and physical home for a lot of needy people, and the drugs and easy sex were probably a nice perk of finding that home, but it sure seems like his Yodship invented some supposedly ancient Eastern philosophy to justify sleeping with a bunch of women half his age.
The Source restaurant was famous enough to be mocked in Annie Hall, but its new owners couldn't maintain the same level of quality and it eventually shuttered. But the dietary choices it espoused are now mainstream, with Eater naming it a forerunner to LA's juice bars and vegan restaurants. And in 2019, in true LA fashion, a Beverly Hills restaurant offered a special $75 dollar dinner inspired by the Source's menu. Guests were required to wear the Family's traditional white and listen to old Family members tell stories, because yesterday's pervert is today's '60s nostalgia.