Okay, Cheerio kids, admit it. All this time you thought health food began with frozen yogurt and crunchy granola. You thought bean sprouts came into being sometime around 1970, just when you discovered that white bread was versatile because you could wad it up and play Ping-Pong with it. You thought "organic was a clever euphemism for "unwashed" and "overpriced."
Well then. Obviously you haven't heard the legend of Lindbergh:
Charles Lindbergh, a creature of habit and a man of the utmost precision, kept a careful eye on things back in 1926 when the Spirit of St. Louis was under construction here. He wanted to make sure that every detail of the plane he was to pilot across the Atlantic would meet his specifications.
And every day, or so the legend holds, when Lindy broke for lunch, he left the shop at Ryan Aircraft and walked straight to the House of Nutrition. Every day the strapping young aviator reached into the glass case in the cafeteria line and came back with the same salad of fresh and dried fruit, nuts, lettuce and cottage cheese. Every day, Lindbergh worked his way through the line, paid his quarter for the salad and headed for a linoleum-topped table.
The House of Nutrition did not forget its soon-to-be-legendary customer. Even today, the Lindbergh Salad is listed as a daily special.
On the other hand, the House of Nutrition did not forget inflation, either. The same salad that cost Charles Lindbergh 25 cents in 1926 goes for $2.25 in 1979.
But the price of the Lindbergh salad, the mashed banana squash, the great loaves of whole grain bread may be the only thing that has changed since Lindy frequented the House of Nutrition -- or, for that matter, since the place opened in 1922.
Which makes the House of Nutrition, with its maroon and blue tile exterior, its substandard ceiling heights and its cavernous kitchen -- still lit by a single hanging light bulb -- something of an anomaly in San Diego. High-rise offices with ranch-sized parking lots have dwarfed the tiny two-story building next to Alicia's Corset Shop.
Inside the little health-food restaurant, however, almost no one took notice. Why should they? The House of Nutrition is an organic time warp: Many of the 400 to 500 daily customers have been piling their plates high with all-natural, all-vegetarian meals there for 20 years or longer.
Almost no one is around to dispute this claim, of course, but owner Gordon Watson believes the House of Nutrition, which opened several blocks away in 1919 and moved to its present location in 1922, is the oldest continually operating health-food restaurant in California.
Which ought to hit the children of the whole-grain revolution -- comfortable until now in the assurance that they created all things hale and healthy -- like a ton of refined white sugar.
"You can try anything we have in the store," says Gordon Watson, "and it won't be habit-forming or harmful."
While no one would dispute the latter claim, the remarkable track record of Watson's employes, and customers, might disprove the former.
Chief cook Gertie Jenkins, for example, signed on as a dishwasher when she was just a teen-ager. Now 44, the corpulent woman with the huge bush Afro and designer eyeglasses plans all the menus and personally cooks the daily entrees.
"Everything is done too modern these days," Jenkins grumbled when asked about the hazards of working in such a prehistoric kitchen. "It's no bother to do things by hand."
At that moment Jenkins' own hand was resting on a megalithic squash. "We're gonna bake it," she said evasively. Jenkins refuses to divulge any of her recipes: "I don't really go by the recipes no more."
Out in the dining room, Mary Hankins could not be lured away from the trays she was busing long enough to discuss the job she has held since, it is said, the days of Lindbergh. Anyway, Mary Hankins, whose starchy white hair, crisp waitress uniform and deep red lipstick make her look like a Lily Tomlin character, is not about to disclose such information. Someone might figure out her age.
Hankins will, however, stop to chat, with regular customers, customers like the lady in the flowered hat who comes in for her daily fix of potato salad. Today she is reading a book on Vitamin C and cancer while she eats. Owing to her veteran status, this customer is apparently exempt from the management's no-books-in-the-dining-area policy.
While this woman is your regular San Diego lady, your prim, proper, garden club type, not all the regular customers at the House of Nutrition fall into this category.
There is, for example, the pearshaped gentleman who takes every meal there every day. He eats only carrots and potatoes, tons of them, and drinks six to seven quarts of milk a day.
This is not what makes him distinctive.
What makes him distinctive is his attire: The calf-length raincoat; the black high-topped basketball shoes, worn without socks; the big straw hat; the beach chair folded under his arm.
He, too, was reading a book on Vitamin C and cancer while he dug into his carrots and potatoes. Clearly, he was too engrossed in the book to notice the tall, blond man in the Red Baron helmet working his way through the cafeteria line.
The tall young man reached into the glass case and pulled out a salad of fresh and dried fruit, nuts, lettuce and cottage cheese.He paid his quarter and headed for a linoleum-topped table.
Time freezes in California, when you're having a good time.