Mildred Lager: Work with Soyfoods in Los Angeles
A Special Exhibit - The History of Soy Pioneers Around the World - Unpublished Manuscript
by William Shurtleff and Akiko
Mildred Lager was one of the
pioneers of the natural foods and soyfoods movement in Los Angeles,
starting in about 1933. In 1945 she wrote The Useful Soybean, which we
consider to be one of the finest books on soyfoods written in America.
Early Years (1908-32). Mildred M. Lager was born in 1908 at Superior, Wisconsin, of Swedish parents, who immigrated to America. Although a healthy child, raised on a sound traditional diet, she began to notice at an early age that her teeth were soft and her legs often ached. While in her teens she had been told by physicians that she had incurable rheumatoid arthritis and would never walk again, her hands and feet being completely alkylosed (locked stiff) at the time. In 1925 she started her lifelong battle with arthritis. She soon became deeply interested in nutrition, convinced that she could heal herself through changing her diet. This interest eventually led her to soyfoods. Although already underweight, she decided to go on an eliminative diet, using only fruit juices. Five months later her swelling had disappeared and she was making remarkable progress. She decided to spend the rest of her life studying nutrition and trying to help others who suffered as she had from arthritis.
It is not clear when she arrived in Los Angeles, where she spent the rest of her life. Already at this early date, Los Angeles had become one of the most active, if not the most active center of interest in soyfoods and "health foods" in America. This was due, in part, to the strong influence of Seventh-day Adventist work with natural foods and vegetarian diets (see Chapter 66.4 and 66.9) and to the presence of numerous soyfood producers such as T.A. Van Gundy, himself an Adventist. Thus Los Angeles was an excellent vantage point from which to study and write about soyfoods.
The House of Better Living and Early Work with Soy. On 25 October 1933 Mildred, only 25 years old, opened The House of Better Living, a large and attractive building surrounded by lawns and gardens at 1207 W. 6th St. in Los Angeles. She later wrote, "My aim was to teach, not to merchandise, and to always make my classes free of charge. The House of Better Living aims to be more than a food store--as a store it has a policy of quality, service, and fair prices. Its aims are to teach Better Living--to teach you to help yourself--to help you to realize that sensible living pays big dividends and is the secret of a healthier, happier, and more prosperous life." (Newsletter, Oct. 1938). The House, owned and operated by Mildred, soon became very popular and within a few years was probably the most successful natural food store and educational center in the western US. In 1934 Mildred started her own radio program called "Food Facts," broadcast every Monday through Thursday morning at 7:45 A.M. In September 1935 she began to publish a monthly four-page newsletter entitled The House of Better Living, which was sent out to a large mailing list. In the first issue, as in succeeding issues, there were numerous mentions of soyfoods. A soybean recipe set and a booklet containing soybean recipes were advertised, a recipe for whole-wheat and soy waffles was given, soybeans were called "one of the most economical proteins," and it was announced that the store carried a full line of soybean products. It would seem from this that soyfoods had a good image at the time in Los Angeles. From the time that the House of Better Living opened, Mildred taught free classes in healthful cookery at the House every Wednesday from 1:30 P.M. In March 1936 she taught her first class on "Soy Flour and Other Soy Products."
It is not clear exactly how Mildred developed her interest in soyfoods starting in the early 1930s. It may have started through her concern for developing alternates to dairy products in her arthritic diets. It grew greatly from her work selling, teaching, researching, and writing about soyfoods at the House of Better Living. She probably also learned a lot from Ed Jones, a wholesale jobber who started carrying T.A. Van Gundy's soyfoods in the early 1930s and delivering them to Mildred's store after 1934; Mildred married Ed in 1946. In 1935 she wrote a 224-page book titled Food Facts, which gave information on diet and health. By 1936 she had written two booklets, Menus and Diet Aids for the Arthritic, and Give Nature a Chance: Six Weeks to Better Eating. She may have learned something about soyfoods from Dorothea Van Gundy, T.A. Van Gundy's daughter, who lived and worked with soyfoods nearby. Ms Van Gundy wrote a 48-page booklet about soyfoods, La Sierra Recipes, in 1936, and later revised several of Mildred's books, being listed as co-author. It is not clear if and when Mildred and Dorothea first met (it was probably in 1945), and to what extent, if any (probably none) Dorothea influenced Mildred in writing her books on soyfoods. Mildred makes no mention of Dorothea or T.A. Van Gundy in any of her books.
From 1936 Mildred had her own column in the Los Angeles Times. It was entitled "Food Facts," had her picture at the top, and was so widely read that she was later referred to as "The Betty Crocker of the L.A. Times." She was also a lecturer, author, and dietary consultant. In all of her work, she taught the public about soyfoods.
Mildred Lager was one of the first people in the Los Angeles area to make the distinction between natural foods and "health foods." In 1935 she wrote:
We carry only natural foods minus the highly advertised "Health Food Products." All natural foods are health foods, but not visa versa . . . Don't become vitamin faddy. If you use all kinds of natural foods, vitamins will take care of themselves.
Only carefully selected foods were carried in her store. She taught people why to use whole foods (whole-wheat flour, brown rice, etc.) and why not to use white sugar. She was not, however, a vegetarian and she did use and encourage the use of meat. Of course, she encouraged the use of soyfoods even more. She was a Unitarian by faith and not a Seventh-day Adventist, as some have thought.
Two Early Catalogs. In March 1936 Mildred published The House of Better Living Catalog, an 8-1/2 by 11-inch 14-page listing of the products carried in her store, which was billed on the cover as "the most unusual store in Southern California." It is remarkable to see at this early date that 27 American-style soyfoods were being marketed in Los Angeles:
In early 1938 an enlarged version of the Catalog appeared containing some 26 new soyfoods and a total of 42 in all. The new products were:
In the 1938 Catalog ads were run by some soyfoods producers: Radcliff's Soya Foods (146 Fillmore St., San Francisco), Bill Baker's Soy Products, Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Foods, and Therapy, Ltd. (Pasadena, Calif.; makers of Theradophilus soymilk).
Mildred and Her Books About Soyfoods. What kind of person was Mildred Lager? Her stepdaughter said of her, "She had tremendous spirit. She was a tiny little thing, very slight, but always with a twinkle in her eye, always a laugh. She was a very pretty woman. She had a brisk walk and a little swing of her leg, no one would call it a limp, from the arthritis she had conquered. She forged ahead and was eager to help others. Others saw her as likeable and friendly. Businesswise she was very sharp, perhaps overly thrifty. Nobody could take advantage of her."
In 1942 Mildred wrote her first work on soyfoods, entitled Soy Bean Recipes: 150 Ways to Use Soy Beans as Meat, Milk, Cheese & Bread. A 44-page booklet, it was packed with accurate information (some derived from USDA publications) and good recipes for using soybeans "From Soup to Nuts." She acknowledged the help on this subject she had received from Madison College and Loma Linda Foods (see Chapter 66), El Molino Mills, Penna Soy Products, and from many friends who gave her suggestions and recipes. In December 1942 recipes from this book were excerpted in The Soybean Digest. As an introduction she wrote: "I am teaching nutrition for the American Women's Volunteer Service and you can be sure that soybeans will be given their proper place in the diet. I am not a vegetarian, a food faddist, or a soybean nut of any kind, but I do believe that the soybean belongs in our present nutritional program from the economic standpoint."
Mildred's interest in soyfoods continued and increased. In 1945, when American interest in soyfoods was at an all-time high during World War II, she wrote her major work, The Useful Soybean: A Plus Factor in Modern Nutrition (284 pp, McGraw-Hill, $2.75 hardcover). Indicating careful and extensive research from sources such as the Soybean Digest and USDA publications, the book was filled with interesting details from the 1930s and 1940s, and gave a balanced yet exciting view of the great potential of soyfoods in America. Although the 350 recipes were not all vegetarian, they were carefully tested. Lager wrote in the book, "We who were interested in soy as a food were considered `food nuts' or fanatics. Later I was tempted to say `I told you so.'" Opposed to relying on vitamins and other food supplements for good health, she urged a return to natural, unrefined foods. "I believe that proper nutrition and common-sense living are man's best medicine. I also believe that science cannot equal the Master Chemist and that therefore natural foods are better than refined, even if the latter are enriched." By this time she had become president of the National Dietary Association and vice president of the Health Food Dealers of Southern California.
For a year or two both Mildred and Dorothea Van Gundy had been courting Ed Jones. In 1946 Jones, whose first wife had died in 1943, finally decided to marry Mildred. At about that time Mildred apparently stopped much of her work with nutrition, including her store, radio program, and newspaper column. Why? Perhaps because she no longer needed the income.
By 1955 McGraw-Hill had apparently let her book, The Useful Soybean, go out of print, for in that year she revised the book by greatly condensing the first 180 pages but leaving in all 350 recipes, then reissued it as a 115-page, spiral-bound, self-published work entitled How to Use the Soybean: A Plus Factor in Modern Nutrition. It was printed by La Sierra College Press, an Adventist printer in Arlington, California. Mildred was listed as the sole author. She and her husband sold the books from their home.
In the mid-1950s Mildred came out with a new edition of her booklet diabetic diets. In 1964 she published a 68-page booklet, Suggestions for the Arthritic. By 1978 it was in its twenty-first printing. It had been extensively revised by Dorothea Van Gundy Jones and included a great many recipes using soyfoods.
In her later years, Mildred had (on her doctor's advice) been taking increasingly large doses of steroid hormones, cortisone derivatives, for her arthritis. These eventually killed her. She died on 25 January 1960 of various factors, largely caused by the steroids. She had severe osteoporosis at the time.
After her death, in August 1960, Ed Jones married Dorothea Van Gundy, a former sweetheart, and encouraged her to revise Mildred's soyfoods book and bring it out under a new title, The Soybean Cookbook, which subsequently became a best-seller as described at Chapter 23.7. In 1981 Mildred's fine book The Useful Soybean, was very difficult to find (it should be reissued), but The Soybean Cookbook was widely available.
Mildred Lager's The Useful Soybean will long remain one of the finest books in this field, and her work will be remembered as having played a vital role in making the Los Angeles area today a center of interest in natural foods and soyfoods.