The Health Fad That Had Henry James, Franz Kafka, and Arthur Conan Doyle Chewing Like Lunatics

What to eat. What not to eat.
April 10 2013 12:00 AM

How Many Times Should You Chew Your Food?

For maximum efficiency, according to one of the original crackpot health fads, hundreds and hundreds of times.

Horace Fletcher, American health-food faddist, September 1908.
Horace Fletcher, American health-food faddist

Courtesy of Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

There is a point at which efficiency crosses over into lunacy, and the savings in money or resources cease to be worthwhile in light of the price paid in other ways. Horace Fletcher, the self-dubbed economic nutritionist, danced around that point his whole career. What amazes me is the degree to which he was taken seriously. Fletcher was the instigator of a fad for extremely thorough chewing. We are not talking about British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s 32 chews per bite. We are talking about this: “One-fifth of an ounce of the midway section of the young garden onion, sometimes called ‘challot,’ has required 722 mastications before disappearing through involuntary swallowing.”

Fletcher in the flesh did not, by most accounts, appear to be the crackpot that that sentence suggests. He is described as cheerful and charming, a bon vivant who liked to dress in cream-colored suits that set off his tan and matched his snowy hair. He believed in physical fitness, clean living, good manners, fine food. Fletcher’s well-lubed charm and connections served him well. Generals and presidents took up “Fletcherizing,” as did Henry James, Franz Kafka, the inevitable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1912, around the fad’s peak, Oklahoma Sen. Robert L. Owen penned a proclamation—a draft of which resides among the Fletcher papers at Harvard—urging the formation of a National Department of Health based on the principles of the Fletcher system. Sen. Owen declared excessive chewing a “national asset” worthy of compulsory teaching in schools. Not long after, Fletcher snagged a post on Herbert Hoover’s World War I Commission for Relief in Belgium.

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It was not mere charisma that landed him there. Fletcherism held a good deal of intuitive appeal. Fletcher believed—decided, really—that by chewing each mouthful of food until it liquefies, the eater could absorb more or less double the amount of vitamins and other nutrients. “Half the food commonly consumed is sufficient for man,” he stated in a letter in 1901. Not only was this economical—Fletcher estimated that the United States could save half a million dollars a day by Fletcherizing—it was healthier, or so he maintained. By delivering heaps of poorly chewed food to the intestine, Fletcher wrote, we overtax the gut and pollute the cells with the by-products of “putrid bacterial decomposition.”

Practitioners of Fletcher’s hyperefficient chewing regimen, he wrote, should produce one-tenth the bodily waste considered normal in the health and hygiene texts of his day. And the waste was of a superior quality—as demonstrated by an unnamed “literary test subject” who, in July 1903, while living in a hotel in Washington, D.C., subsisted on a glass of milk and four Fletcherized corn muffins a day. It was a maximally efficient scenario. At the end of eight days, he had produced 64,000 words and just one bowel movement.

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“Squatting upon the floor of the room, without any perceptible effort he passed into the hollow of his hand the contents of the rectum,” wrote the anonymous writer’s physician in a letter printed in one of Fletcher’s books. “The excreta were in the form of nearly round balls,” and left no stain on the hand. “There was no more odour to it than there is to a hot biscuit.” So impressive, so clean, was the man’s residue that his physician was inspired to set it aside as a model to aspire to. Fletcher adds in a footnote that “similar [dried] specimens have been kept for five years without change,” hopefully at a safe distance from the biscuits.

At one chew per second, the Fletcherizing of a single bite of shallot would take more than 10 minutes. Supper conversation presented a challenge. “Horace Fletcher came for a quiet dinner, sufficiently chewed,” wrote the financier William Forbes in his journal from 1906. Woe befall the non-Fletcherizer forced to endure what historian Margaret Barnett called “the tense and awful silence which ... accompanies their excruciating tortures of mastication.” Nutrition faddist John Harvey Kellogg, whose sanatorium briefly embraced Fletcherism, tried to re-enliven mealtimes by hiring a quartette to sing “The Chewing Song,” an original Kellogg composition, while diners grimly toiled. (I managed to track down only one stanza. It was enough. “I choose to chew/ because I wish to do/ the sort of thing that Nature had in view/ Before bad cooks invented sav’ry stew/ When the only way to eat was to chew, chew, chew.”)

I searched in vain for film footage, but Barnett was probably correct in assuming that “Fletcherites at table were not an attractive sight.” Franz Kafka’s father, she reports, “hid behind a newspaper at dinnertime to avoid watching the writer Fletcherize.” How did this unsightly and extreme practice come to be taken seriously? Fletcher, an assiduous networker and general gadabout, began by getting the scientists on his side. Though he had no background in medicine or physiology, he collected friends who did. While living in a hotel in Venice in 1900, Fletcher befriended the hotel doctor, Ernest van Someren. Originally more interested in Fletcher’s stepdaughter than in his theories, van Someren was eventually won over (or worn down—Fletcher’s letters, though gaily phrased, amount to lengthy harangues). Van Someren gussied up Fletcher’s theories with invented medical jargon like the “secondary reflex of deglutition.”

As only a hotel doctor has time for, van Someren set to work gathering the data both men knew Fletcher would need to gain approval in scientific circles. Fletcher had experimented on himself, but these efforts were unlikely to convince the research community. He had simply weighed and recorded each day’s bodily input and output for both himself and “my man Carl,” over the course of a bicycle trip through France. As Fletcher described the scenario, in a letter to one of his benefactors in 1900, Carl was “a young Tyrolean ... in national costume” hired to carry the scale and “wheel my bicycle up the grades and be generally useful.”

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