Okay, okay, I confess. I thought the whole Little Lad’s thing was a little strange, especially when I heard whisperings of the founders being religious. When their restaurant was on Exchange Street, I would go in for lunch every once in a while, but I would skulk around trying to avoid possible proselytizers. I thought it was just a matter of time before a brochure about Jesus got swallowed with my vegan shepherd’s pie.
When they moved to 482 Congress Street, I didn’t make the adjustment with them. It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t like the food. And the prices were terrific. It was just that feeling — waiting for the religious shoe to drop — that kept me away.
But I couldn’t escape that damned popcorn! If you have lived in Portland for more than a week, you know what I’m talking about. That freakin’ popcorn is so good, it’s addictive. What Portlander has not stared at their yellowed fingers and herb-encrusted nails after a good dive into a Pig bag of the Lad’s herbal corn and not wondered where the last hour has gone? Who has not secretly wanted a hand enlargement so as to cram just a little more into each fistful?
I went to see Larry Fleming, the man behind the popper and founder of the restaurant, and asked him why it’s so addictive: “People are so low on nutrition that when they get something that’s nutritious, they crave it.” And how. To meet the demand, Larry and his wife Maria pop roughly 2500 pounds of kernels a week.
But that’s nothing: From the late ’70s to the early ’90s, Larry spearheaded the opening of health food restaurants (then called “Country Life”) all over the world: London, Paris, Oslo. Cities in Japan and Korea. Over the years, most of them came and went, but there is currently a version of Little Lad’s in Nigeria. And another in Portugal. The one that Larry spends the most energy on these days, however, is on Lower Broadway, near Wall Street. Larry delivers food to the New York restaurant by driving it eight hours from Corinth each week. He pays himself no salary (“I don’t want to run a company where I am trying to make money off of your health problems”) and all the profits go back into the business.
So what’s the religious angle on all this? Well, it’s much more straightforward and pragmatic than I had supposed. Larry and his family are Seventh Day Adventists, a religion founded by Ellen White in 1863. The SDA teachings have always emphasized physical health, with whole, natural food understood to be the foundation of it. The message is clear: clean air, clean water, and pure food lead to a purity of spirit that cannot be achieved any other way. Amen.
Although not all Adventists are vegetarian, some estimate that 50 percent are, with many also abstaining from processed food, caffeine, and alcohol. The Little Lad’s restaurants, and all their products, are strictly vegan.
The SDA approach is not typical: “Christians are sometimes the biggest hindrance to people changing their diet,” explains Larry, “because they teach people ‘Oh, just pray about it.’ You pray about that cigarette, you pray about that Coca-Cola — does that make it good for you?” His eyebrows rise: “So I have actually become, let’s say... a disturbed Christian.” Brows furrow. “I’m sharing this information because [the former] is completely the wrong concept. If this is a Christian nation, why do we have the worst health statistics? Because we’re teaching people that they can eat garbage, and then by praying about it, it will get better.”
In the hour we spend together, Larry and I discuss Mad Cow Disease, aspartame-induced seizures, Gulf War Syndrome, and Bovine Growth Hormone. He is passionate about the health crises we’re eating our way into, and he knows his facts.
I could kick back with some popcorn and listen for a while — I like this guy — but Larry’s gotta keep moving; he’s got overworked, non-Adventist, power-hungry New Yorkers to feed. And he loves it.
P.S. Little Lad’s popcorn and many of their other 200 products are being picked up by Whole Foods and Wild Oats, and may be sold nationally in the near future.
Jessica Porter is the author of The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics and can be reached at email@example.com .