Nuts Among The Berries

Scouting the history of American food fads  for Grain of Truth to put the current gluten-free epidemic into perspective, I came across Nuts Among The Berries  by Ronald M. Deutsch, self-published in 1977. Its subtitle captures the spirit of the book: "How Nutrition Nonsense Captured America." Deutsch's nuts are the looney birds. in his view,  who have  initiated various  "magical" efforts to improve our diets and  and cure illness throughout  history. The madness of their methods tickles his fancy. They've been hoodwinking us for centuries, says Deutsch, starting with Dr. Elisha Perkins. In 1796 he constructed two metal rods. each three inches long made made from specially fabricated material. He called them "tractors". Placing rods over an area of the body that suffered from pain or disease, then drawing them away,  Dr. Elisha claimed he could remove the cause of the infirmity.

Perkins made a fortune, and a name for himself. One of his most ardent followers was George Washington, who bought tractors for his entire family. Trying to combat the yellow fever plague that struck New York City in 1799, Perkins determined that tractors alone weren't sufficient, and advised  everyone to drink vast quantities of vinegar in tandem with tractor applications. Perkins, fearless and courageous, died shortly thereafter from yellow fever.

It's this sort of storytelling that fills Deutsch's richly anecdotal book and elevates it from a mere screed against outlandish practices that border on quackery into a treasure chest of health-healer lore. On every page you  find something you didn't know, or even knew you wanted to know.  About 25 % of Romans at one point were receiving the tessera, or food stamps, to buy bread,  we learn. Richard Nixon hated cottage cheese, but he ate it every day with ketchup  for lunch because someone told  him he could lose weight that way, and he hated to look  chubby on camera. 

Sounding like a bit of a whack job himself at times, Deutsch is the self-appointed arch enemy of extravagant  claims made for organic food, bean sprouts, yogurt cures and wheat germ—the list is long—and, above all, deceptive promises  made for any food, vitamin or mineral that does not meet his stringent standards for acceptable promotion.

Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg, two of whole wheat's earliest proponents, become favorite subjects of Deutsch, who devotes a chapter to each. Graham, son of a reverend and one of seventeen children, was a fanatical orator from an early age—he got bounced from Amherst College for his speechifying, Deutsch reports. Soon after that Graham latched onto whole wheat as the mainstay of a lifestyle and food diet that combined religious probity with a huge dose of sexual repression. We're talking about the first decades of the 19th century on the Eastern seaboard, when disease was rampant and cures were few, and science played a supporting role to wish fulfillment, religious sermonizing and snake-oil treatments. 

Out of that stew came America's first food fad, championed by Sylvester Graham. He didn't know from gluten, but he knew lust, He detested it,  and connected  sexual degeneracy (as in masturbation)  directly to digesting red meat. As a substitute he concocted a highly inedible baked brick of ground grain made mostly from wheat bran, forerunner of the Graham Cracker. He also started a minor revolution by preaching vegetarianism and extolling the benefits of cold food served without condiments, everything that orangutans ate that drew us close to our natural origins. He even wrote a book on bread. Way ahead of his time, he cautioned against eating while flour, although in his era, impurities were as much of an issue as malnutrition. Less reputable bakers often added chalk to flour to whiten it,  I follow Graham's rise to fame and his mighty hold of a generation of young Americans, called Grahamites,  in  Grain of Truth.  Deutsch's account started me on my way, and I had to make an effort not to thumb randomly to other pages for more lovely nuggets of nutty trivia.

Nuts Among The Berries'  perfect specimen of a wheat-wielding quack-visionary  is another healer who showed up five decades after Graham. In the 1880s  Dr.John Harvey Kellogg converted a Seventh Day Adventist sanitarium in Battle Creek into a pubic health retreat that would become the world-famous "San", a fifteen-story splendid edifice that served daily enemas to the rich and famous and put them through an excruciating  regiment of ice baths and forced laughing exercises. Along the way Kellogg decided to bake and flake wheat into a  morning meal after soaking it all night, but wheat proved less amenable than corn.

His feuding brother Will took up the project and began manufacturing Kellogg's Corn Flakes—delighting Deutsch, whose idea of great fun is to follow the progression of a quack food intended to reduce sexual desire— John Harvey, too, preached abstinence—into a national All American breakfast. Anyone who's read or seen the film adaptation of T.C. Boyle's Road to  Wellville knows the story. I can't recommend Boyle's wickedly funny and exuberant novel enough as a celebration of medical nuttiness and its power of persuasion in the hands of a possessed fanatic like John Harvey Kellogg.

As for Ronald Deutsch. who barely gets a mention on any Google search, he's all but lost to history, His books are long out of print. There is no Wikipedia entry. But Boyle found him, and so did I, with gratitude.  Whatever field of berries he's roaming through in the hereafter, I have no doubt that with his sharp eye, he'll be the first to stop and spot the nuts.