T. A. Van Gundy: Work With Soyfoods

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

ęCopyright 2004 Soyinfo Center, Lafayette, California

One of the most creative and courageous pioneers of soyfoods in America, T.A. Van Gundy was the first Seventh-day Adventist to make a commercial soyfoods product. Moreover, he was the first Westerner to make a commercial soy-based meat analogue (Smoein), the first to produce a full line of commercial soyfoods, the first to can soymilk and tofu, and the first to produce soynuts, soynut butter, soy coffee, canned soybeans, and soy ice cream. He was also the first Caucasian to introduce soyfoods on the Pacific Coast of America. His daughter, Dorothea Van Gundy Jones, was the co-author of the best-selling Soybean Cookbook.

Early Years (1874-1927). Theodore Ananias Van Gundy (his friends called him "Van") was born on 8 July 1874 in the tiny rural community of Osoflaco near Arroyo Grande, on the California coast midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 1886, at age 12, he became a Seventh-day Adventist, and began to show his mechanical talent by building an engine powered by steam from his mother's stove. He went to college in Healdsburg. In 1897 he began his first food production, making peanut butter, then a new food, with a Dr. Hare in Fresno, California. In February 1898 he married Lulu Pond and moved to San Jose. In about 1900 he built an automobile, more clearly manifesting what others later considered a touch of real genius in mechanics, electricity, mathematics, and food processing. He was soon the father of three children: Theodore Romayne (born 14 October 1901), Dorothea (16 February 1903), and Charlotte (8 July 1905, on her father's birthday; she was our main source of information for this article). In 1906 the family moved to St. Helena, California, where Van Gundy worked until 1912 at the Adventist-run St. Helena Sanitarium Food Company, founded in 1898. There he learned how to make many of the new health foods developed by Dr. J.H. Kellogg, including Nut Loaf meat substitutes, Granola, puffed wheat and rice, and flaked cereals. None of these foods contained soy. He also got to know Ellen G. White, since the food company was near her home.

Van Gundy first came interested in soyfoods while attending the 1915 World's fair in San Francisco, where they were featured in the Oriental Exhibits. His daughter, Dorothea, later wrote, "My father became so enthusiastic, he promptly bought a hundred pound sack of soybeans and we began experimenting. We discovered they were hard to cook and had a peculiar flavor. It was some time before we found a way to mask their beany taste and prepare them properly" (Today's Food, Fall 1964).

Sometime between 1915 and 1916 Van Gundy began producing a food that he called Smoein (short for "smoked protein"). He had developed this vegetarian food to match the flavor of smoked fish, which he had loved as a boy. He had smoked his fish on a beach near his home before he became an Adventist and a vegetarian. He started a small company in Sonoma, The Smoein Company, and began to produce his Smoein from broad beans (also called "horse beans"). He was also canning vegetables. But in the period from 1918-1921 he began to use soybeans in place of broad beans. He is thought to have grown at least some of these soybeans himself on a Mr. Edward's ranch, 10 miles east of San Jose, California, where he was ranch foreman. He soaked the soybeans, put them in perforated flats, and smoked them over a hickory fire. (In later years he used "smoke flavor" instead of smoking, but the flavor was never as good.) When dry, he ground the beans to a powder, which he packed and sold in shakers. Sprinkled over potatoes, baked beans, salads, vegetables, or the like, it had a savory bacon-like flavor. It was his first soyfood and the first commercial soy-based meat analog in America.

Van Gundy and his family moved frequently, as he changed jobs. From 1912-1915 he worked in a cannery in Sonoma, from 1915-1919 as a mechanic at Mare Island near Napa, during 1919 on a ranch near San Jose. From 1920-1921 he taught mathematics, science, and Bible studies at New River, a small Adventist country church school southwest of El Centro in Southern California. From 1921-1922 he was head technician in the physiology department of the Medical School at the College of Medical Evangelists (now Loma Linda University).

As a side job, while working in the medical school, Van Gundy continued to make and sell his Soy Smoein. According to Charlotte, a man became interested in helping her father finance Smoein. He gained Van Gundy's confidence, learned his formula, then, the Van Gundys felt, either gave the formula or, more likely, sold it to Loma Linda Foods. In about 1921 or 1922 Loma Linda put out a product suspiciously similar to Van Gundy's but called Smokene. This hurt Van Gundy's business seriously, but he continued to make his product.

From 1922-1929 Van Gundy taught mechanics in the Los Angeles public school system at Pomona and San Gabriel. At about this time Mrs. Van Gundy tragically lost virtually all of her eyesight from an eye infection, called iritis, that developed into corneal ulcers. Yet her spirit and willingness to help as she could with the family work were undaunted.

La Sierra Industries from 1928. In the fall of 1928 (probably not in 1927 as reported by Jones in 1963), Van Gundy moved to La Sierra (now a suburb of Riverside) and started La Sierra Industries, the business that would make him famous as a soyfoods pioneer. The plant was on a lot behind his brother-in-law's home. By constant experimentation and using equipment he designed and built himself, he soon developed a line of eleven soyfoods plus canned garbanzos (chick peas), brown rice, and whole wheat. The first eight La Sierra-brand soyfoods were probably on the market by late 1929. They included Smoein (bacon-flavored smoked soy powder), Soy Beans (canned, unseasoned green-seeded type or with tomato sauce; his next products developed after Smoein), Soy Milk (canned, with the beany flavor removed by processing with live steam), Soy Cheese (canned tofu, with pimiento added to prevent graying after canning), Soy Flour, Soy Mamenoka (roasted soy flour; a Chinese name), Soy-Co (soy coffee substitute with an excellent coffeelike flavor; coarse or fine grind), B-Nuts or Beanuts (oil-roasted soynuts), B-Nut Butter (soynut butter), Soy Spread (canned okara or soy pulp, salt, mace, and other seasonings; it had a soft consistency and was said to taste and smell like "potted chicken"), Soy Gluten (a meat analog of Soy Spread mixed with ground gluten, resembling Dr. Kellogg's Protose, but with soy), and Soy Cereal. In 1929 or 1930 he designed and built the mill that produced this Soy Cereal, a ready-to-eat, toasted and shredded, all-soy product. La Sierra's best selling soyfoods, in descending order or popularity were Soy Cereal, Soy Cheese, Soy-Co, Soybeans Canned with Tomato Sauce, and canned soymilk. It is not clear from whom Van Gundy learned to make tofu and soymilk; perhaps from East Asian tofu makers who were in operation at that time in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was sometimes said that Madison Foods made tofu and soymilk before Van Gundy (Madison made both noncommercially for the dining halls and sanitarium in 1929, then commercially, canned, in 1931 and 1932, respectively), but that Van Gundy had been the first to can both of these products commercially.

The entire Van Gundy family worked together to produce their soyfoods, aided occasionally by a few students from the nearby Adventist La Sierra Academy (founded 1922). The soymilk was made first, early in the morning, then tofu and sometimes gluten. The okara was made into a spread. Theodore Romaine (Ted), the oldest child, who developed the B-nuts, often stayed up late into the night watching the retorts and bringing out the cans for labeling. Charlotte later wrote: "All five of us worked hard. We were all vegetarians and, starting in about 1932, we decided to stop eating dairy products and eggs. Instead we enjoyed soymilk, soy cheese (tofu), tofu cottage cheese, soy whipped cream with honey and vanilla, soy buttermilk, soy mayonnaise, B-Nuts, and B-Nut Butter. We ate so well and we were as strong as oxen: Dad 61, Mother 63, Ted 35, Dot 32, and me 30. It was a real family affair. I was going to medical school, so I could only work part time" (Personal communication, 1981). La Sierra's products were sold in cans having a beautiful lithographed green label with a picture of a soybean plant on it. Van Gundy bought most of his soybeans from the A.E. Staley Mfg. Co. in Decatur, Illinois. He also grew a few rows of soybeans in La Sierra. Some people used some of Van Gundy's soyfoods therapeutically; the soymilk was said to have soothed ulcers, and the soy coffee to have cured arthritis and prevented colds. These foods were sold mostly through health food stores, where they were very popular; the public kept asking him to bring out more new soyfood products. The household-scale recipes for many of these products are given in Dorothea Van Gundy Jones' The Soybean Cookbook.

Dorothea first learned about soyfoods when she was young (about 24) by demonstrating them for her father, as soon as he began producing them. She played an important role in the small family business by doing things like showing people how to brew soy coffee at the then-famous Jones Health Food Store in Los Angeles, preparing a soup-to-nuts dinner for the Rosacrucians in Ojai and for many women's clubs, with soy used in every dish, or preparing her famous tofu drumsticks at dinner clubs; tofu was skewered, dipped in a sauce, rolled in bread crumbs, and baked or fried to resemble a chicken drumstick. In 1932 Dorothea took samples of each of the Van Gundy soyfoods back to be displayed at an American Soybean Association Convention held in Washington, D.C. More about Dorothea's later work with soyfoods is described at "The Soyfoods Cookbook Authors," later in this chapter.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s there was a fierce competition between Van Gundy's La Sierra Foods, Loma Linda Foods, and Haines Foods. Haines reportedly tried to put La Sierra out of business by marketing their Haines canned soybeans for the very, low price of 10 cents a can. Loma Linda Foods, seeing the success of La Sierra's soyfoods, decided to come out with some of their own. According to Charlotte, in about 1933 or 1934, Loma Linda hired away Van Gundy's cooker, Mr. Ransom Brown, by paying him better wages; the next week Loma Linda was producing and canning their first soymilk and tofu (called VegeChee), and soon thereafter a stiff soy spread, also based on Van Gundy's ideas. Charlotte claims that Van Gundy offered to give Loma Linda the formulas for these products if they would invest money to help develop them. Loma Linda continues to make the tofu and soymilk for years thereafter. They dropped some of the other products as being too complicated and/or unprofitable.

Van Gundy's customers thought that he was a fine man who had marvelous products. He had trouble keeping up with the demand for them. They honored him with the nickname "Soybean Van Gundy." Yet like so many pioneers who are far ahead of their time, he was often maligned, made fun of, and called a crackpot. His daughter Charlotte recalls how, when people would come to dinner and enjoy the tasty, well-balanced meal, they would comment, "Oh, so you do eat something besides soybeans?" It took courage to persevere. According to Charlotte, her father was short (5 feet 9 inches), weighed 150-155 pounds, and was lithe and angular, with a square Dutch nose, high forehead, and only two of his own teeth left. Very stoical, he worked 18 hours a day, got by with 4-5 hours of sleep a night, and otherwise never rested. He was a serious Bible student and taught Bible classes. "He could do anything, and nothing could defeat him. He was the most wonderful father in the world."

In about 1931 Van Gundy moved his business to Ontario, California, about 30 miles west of Riverside, and thus east of Los Angeles. He needed a larger building and access to railroad shipping in and out. There, on California Street, he developed a soy buttermilk (that was never marketed commercially) and a soymilk ice cream. In 1934 Mrs. Van Gundy and her son displayed and sold their soymilk ice cream at a big household fair and food show. It came in four flavors: carob, vanilla, avocado, and carrot juice. After the move to Ontario, Van Gundy's family and Dr. Harry Miller's family grew to know one another. Willis Miller, Dr. Miller's son, went to work with Van Gundy to learn more about the canning operation. At about this time a Mr. Kingman, head of the United Laboratory on Glen Oaks Street in Pasadena, had developed an acidophilus milk (made of cow's milk) brand-named Theradophilus. On experiment, however, or perhaps through the work of Dr. J.H. Kellogg, he found that the Lactobacillus bacteria grew better on soymilk. He contacted Dorothea at La Sierra in about 1930, and she helped him to develop a good acidophilus soymilk, apparently the first in America. Mr. Kingman died, however, and his laboratory was sold; the soy acidophilus was never commercialized, although the dairy Theradophilus was still being sold in 1984. Since the ASA convention in Washington D.C. in 1931, William Morse had known of Van Gundy's work with soy. A photograph taken of soyfoods samples in Morse's office in 1936 shows cans of La Sierra Soy Milk, Soy Beans, and Soy Beans with Tomato Sauce.

The Man and His Legacy. Theodore A. Van Gundy died before his time, on 3 June 1935, in White Memorial Hospital, Los Angeles, at age 61, of a coronary occlusion (blockage). Charlotte feels that he worked himself to death.

La Sierra Industries did not last long after Van Gundy's death. It had definitely stopped operations by 1937, and probably by 1936, although inventories of canned goods may have been sold for the next year or two. Even during good years, the business was constantly plagued by lack of capital, and often had difficulty keeping up with orders. According to Charlotte, her father, though a visionary, was a poor businessman, always trusting people too much and frequently being taken advantage of. He lacked financial backing and was unskilled and impractical at handling and budgeting money. Bills sometimes piled up; once the utility company turned off the family's home electricity for 3 months until the electrical bill was paid. After Mr. Van Gundy's death, his two daughters went to Los Angeles and contacted a Mr. Lang, who was supposed to be skilled in raising money for small businesses. He in turn contacted two other men and $60,000 was raised for the business. It turned out that one of the two men was a "shifty eyed con artist." He absconded with all the money, leaving the family destitute; they lost even their furniture and car.

Yet Van Gundy's soyfoods ideas and developments had just begun to live, although it is not clear to what extent other soyfoods producers (such as Loma Linda Foods and Madison Foods) were influenced by them and in what specific ways. Regardless, he was an exceptionally creative and courageous soyfoods pioneer--one of America's first.