Health Nuts

Crazy diets go way, way back.


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We think of it as a modern craze, but there have always been those amongst us who are obsessed with healthy eating. By the Middle Ages, doctors still accepted the ancient Greek doctrine that each individual body was made up of different amounts of the four essential “humors” — blood, bile, choler, and phlegm — which in turn dictated a person’s hot, moist, cool, and dry elements. Every thoughtful banquet host had to provide foods that catered to each guest’s distinct physical makeup, so that those guests could keep their humors properly balanced and enjoy well-being. A large fish or side of pork, when served at table, might have been divided into quarters in the kitchen, with a different sauce provided for each humor. Just to complicate things, it was also believed that meat could transfer an animal’s qualities directly to the consumer. Thus pigeon was considered the healthiest of all viands, since it was such a light and agile creature. Beef caused bovine dullness. Rabbit made diners cowardly. Wolf’s liver gave courage.

Odd as the Middle Ages seem, quack nutritionists really came into their own in the Renaissance: No sooner had the printing press been invented in 1440 than a boom in diet books followed, with every medical practitioner in Europe, it seems, weighing in with their favorite diets. Throughout the era, health-conscious readers were wracked by anxiety, since doctors decided that whatever tasted good was probably bad for the body. Although there was no all-purpose ideal diet, experts generally agreed that “dry foods” were healthier than “moist” ones, which led to languid spirits, dull wits, and even memory loss. Thus, writes food historian Ken Albala, educated diners avoided vegetables religiously — mushrooms were pernicious, cucumbers nearly deadly — and they suffered from “a fear of fruits bordering on the pathological.” It was believed that a fruit’s juicy texture would blot out the stomach’s “digestive heat;” worse, the sweet textures of fruit would slowly putrefy in your intestines and ooze corrupt fluids into your blood. The only fresh produce permitted were figs and raisins. “Brain foods,” on the other hand, included chicken, veal, poached eggs, white bread, and white wine (in moderation).

One can sympathize with the Renaissance diner’s confusion: By the end of the 16th century, most people were simply ignoring these restrictive diets — although they felt terribly guilty about doing so. Soon, nutritionists were provoking the opposite of what they intended: Authors rabidly denounced cantaloupes as the most sinister of fruits, but their moist dangers made them secretly alluring to gourmands. Devouring a ripe melon became an image of decadent, defiant pleasure — living on the edge, Renaissance-style.

Health fanatics were just as conflicted when history’s next serious craze occurred, in France. In 1742, an erudite manifesto announced the arrival of La Nouvelle Cuisine, or the “natural” diet. Instead of the heavy, contrived, and artificial preparations that had insidiously come to dominate aristocratic kitchens (mutton cutlets, spiced sausages, pates, spinach stewed beyond recognition). The revolutionary new regime stressed fresh seasonal ingredients, porridges, cream of rice, fruits, preserves, cream cheeses, light broths, and wholesome flavors. Nutrition experts even singled out one profession whose members were particularly at risk from the old style of cooking: Writers, because their overactive brains and sedentary lifestyles led to melancholia and constipation.

Not everyone was convinced by the New Cuisine, since in practice the cooking style was never as “simple” as advertised. “I swear my stomach can not get used to this nouvelle cuisine,” grumbled Voltaire in 1765. “I cannot stand the ham essences, mushrooms, pepper, and nutmeg with which (cooks) disguise dishes that are, left by themselves, perfectly fine and healthful.” He was in the minority. In the mid-1780s, the city of Paris even held bals de santé, “health balls,” which would begin late afternoon and close at midnight for “the sick, and those who must follow a strict regimen.” • 17 June 2008

SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Albala, Ken, Eating Right in the Renaissance, (Berkeley, 2002); Spang, Rebecca, The Invention of the Restaurant, (Harvard, 2000).



Tony Perrottet's book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.