Fantastic Mr. Fletcher
It may be difficult for some to picture a time where advice given by many of the foremost thinkers in nutrition was as simple as a catch phrase. Admittedly, much of the council our Victorian ancestors received is now easily dismissed. “Guinness is good for you”, the aphorism that revolted Gordon Comstock by its inanity in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying is now a relic of the time of the advertising firm. One of my personal favourites from the era of Victoria and Dickens comes from an American fellow by the name of Horace Fletcher.
Known by his followers as The Great Masticator, Fletcher advocated a peculiar dietary regimen. To put it tersely, “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.” And those Fletcherizers, who in their homes, or at restaurants, day and night, chewed each and every piece of their meal thirty-two times before swallowing; every piece of steak, chunk of potato, spoonful of soup, or swig of wine (indeed, he advocated that liquids receive the same treatment) believed that this had a direct and positive effect on their health. Understandably, the man probably saved several people from choking to death, but one must ask, “at what cost?”
If any of you have by chance, unsuspectingly popped a faulty piece of chewing gum into your mouths, perhaps from a batch that had the ingredients mixed in the wrong proportions, you may remember the feeling of revulsion that slowly crept over you, as the once materially sound and robust stick began to lose its integrity and crumble into an abject slurry of grainy material sloshing around, sticking to your teeth, forcing you to void the contents of your mouth in a substantial loogie. This, I can only suspect, must be the feeling that comes over a man when Fletcherizing his meal. Since musing on the subject can only take you so far, I decided to try fletcherizing my meals for a day.
Among the tenets of ‘Fletcherism’, the underlying notion was awareness of what we are consuming, which is certainly admirable. Fletcher preached that we should be aware of what nutrients are contained in the food we ingest, that his method of eating would decrease our appetites, that one should not eat unless they were in the proper mind set, all of which we still lend credit to today. And his diet absolutely did this. As I noticed when I subjected myself to the fletcherization of my meals, struggling not to swallow the bolus of food forming in my mouth, to give my stomach and intestines some work to do, I became full before the supply of food on my plate was exhausted. This phenomenon is exploited par nos amis Français, who on average take more time to consume their meals, despite how rich the food that they eat is. Time flies, when you Fletcherize.
The truth in Fletcher’s claim that we only eat when in the proper mindset also has some validity. If you by chance find yourself in a love triangle between two lovers, struck with a decision to make, and want some ice cream in the process, far be it from me to stop you, but do know that you will likely finish the entire tub – to take a contemporary example of what Fletcher hinted at. While I found I had more time to reflect upon my thoughts while a chomped away at my food (perfecting the art of counting to thirty-two, I might add), this rule had little bearing on my eating habits for the day. Save the gloom, when you consume.
Perhaps one of the tasks for the more committed Fletcherizer, upon which I also omitted the inspection of, as Fletcher called it, was my excreta. Dear Horace pushed the analogy that a healthy human body was akin to a well functioning machine. Our heart is our engine, and food, our fuel. The exhaust I suppose… This ‘digestive ash’, as he called it, was supposed to be without smell in a healthy Fletcherizer. This criteria seems to be somewhat more suspect than some of the other postulates of The Great Masticator’s program, given the high variability of bacterial fauna in the human digestive tract among populations and diets. Yet, I chuckle at the thought of a Victorian gentleman relieving himself and then going in for the sniff, as it were. The exhaust is clean, with the proper cuisine.
And so, I fought diligently through an entire day, chewing every piece of my meal thirty-two times before reluctantly swallowing. My sensitive teeth did eventually vanquish my will to try it out on cold drinks, and perhaps sushi with friends that day was not the most pleasant it could have been. I observed that contrary to what I had believed, the task of masticating every solid item I ingested caused me to go for larger portions each time, seemingly contradicting the idea that I would be eating less over a longer time and likely amplifying the chance of choking.
Beyond the humour of these stories, there is always a lesson. In this case, we tell ourselves how spurious this program was, and wonder how any sane person could get themselves to experience the worst in food for what they suspected was best of their health. There is no doubt in my mind, that matters have plummeted into greater despair from the time of Mr. Fletcher. Many of the diets, and cleansings we accept as scientific and healthy today are just as ridiculous as Fletcherizing. And we need not cast this off as a matter of hindsight, because even when Fletcher brought forth his program, some hundred years ago, people dismissed it. Today, we are even better armed with the knowledge to make decisions, but we are just as amnesiac about whose credibility to trust. It is not as simple as The Scientist against The Snake Oil Salesman, but it is as simple as examining the evidence, reading through the peer-reviewed literature, and asking questions. So it was in the end with Fletcher, who died from bronchitis at 70, and while some faithful few Fletcherizers still loyally continued on, by and large, his program had already been succeeded by a new, and equally preposterous one.