Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Diet Gurus.

January 29

The story of Byron and his diet dilemma a few days ago created bit of feedback. It seems that the topic interests quite a few of you, and it whet my interest to see what the ‘experts’ have suggested over the years for the treatment of corpulence.

In a lovely bit of synchronicity, today is the birthday of the American novelist and essayist Edward Abbey (1927), who is the perpetrator of one of my favourite pithy sayings on the topic of diets.

‘Nobody seems more obsessed by diet than our anti-materialist, otherwordly, New Age, spiritual types. But if the material world is merely an illusion, an honest guru should be as content with Budweiser and bratwurst as with raw carrot juice, tofu, and seaweed slime.’

I started to work backwards, so have a few gleanings from the works of some nineteenth century physicians for you. It seems that they were all in agreement that less food and more exercise was the key, but it was in the details that they differed from each other, and in their attitude that they differ from modern gurus. No modern expert would get away with the patronising sexist approach of “A Physician” in 1828, who, in reference to the “fair readers” of his advice on the Reduction of Corpulency noted that:

‘It behoves them, however, to remember, that physical beauty is necessarily associated with the flowing curve, and the crescent, and, therefore, that to the perfection of beauty in the female figure, the existence of some degree of embonpoint, is absolutely necessary. Nature abhors, so to speak, the straight line and the angle, so commonly combined with leanness, almost as much as she does a vacuum.

He repeated ‘Old Parr’s rule, which was. ‘If you are inclined to get fat, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.’ He also suggested that ‘friction ought to claim particular notice, as a domestic exercise, from all ladies who are desirous of reducing their embonpoint. Half an hour a day, friction all over. Interesting.

Rather alarmingly, he also advised restriction of liquids – as low as 16 or 20 ounces in a day, specifying ‘Of liquid aliment, the best is cyder, perry, light acidulous wines, tea, and water. The wines to be preferred are, Red Hermitage, Rhenish, Hock, Barsac, Claret, and Champagne; but those who can do without wine will be most successful in their plan of reduction. Cream of tartar and water forms a useful drink for the corpulent.”

I don’t suppose there is any profit in cream of tartar and water for the weight loss industry.

Another physician (in 1863) recommended hot baths to promote copious perspiration, and diet of course, but insisted that more fat is required for ‘hard brain-workers’.

A few leaned to giving culinary advice. Here is a physician in 1850:

“ I cannot help pausing an instant to speak of the absurdity of our usual way of dressing macaroni. After being boiled and made palatable, it is sprinkled with cheese, and placed before the fire, so as to form a tough, rancid, empyreumatic crust, nauseous and indigestible in the extreme. Boiled till soft, and eaten with French mustard or jam, it makes a soluble and wholesome diet, pleasing to the palate and the reason.”

Friction (or ‘dry rubbing’ with or without powder’), a tight band around the abdomen (enables exercise to be taken with more facility; and ‘appears also by pressure, to afford some assistance to the absorption of fat’), and even bleeding and purging were suggested in some cases by the macaroni-doctor. He liked the idea of bitter tonics too – because “they enable the stomach to digest more easily and rapidly, and therefore be contented with a smaller quantity of really nourishing food.”

Byron believed in the slimming power of vinegar, but one physician claimed that it only produced thinness by ‘injuring the digestive organs’, and in fact he felt that the opposite was what was indicated due to the ‘chemical affinity of alkalies for fat’. He therefore prescribed what was in essence a slightly soapy solution of ‘liquor potassae’, so long as this was not used in inappropriate cases however, such as in debilitated gouty subjects and chronic stone in the bladder, else much harm would be done.

In the spirit of Edward Abbey and his remarks on silly diet gurus, just to spite those silly gurus, I give you several decidedly un-dietary carrot recipes.

Sweet Carrots. (Entremets.)
Boil quite tender some fine highly-flavoured carrots, press the water from them, and rub them through the back .of a fine hair-sieve; put them into a clean saucepan or stewpan, and dry them thoroughly over a gentle fire; then add a slice of fresh butter, and when this is dissolved and well mixed with them, strew in a dessertspoonful or more of powdered sugar, and a little salt; next, stir in by degrees some good cream, and when this is quite absorbed, and the carrots again appear dry, dish and serve them quickly with small sippets, a la Reine placed round them.
[Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery, 1858]

Carrots a la Orleans.
TAKE a few young carrots, turn them of an equal size, and cut them in slices of about the eighth of an inch thick, and blanch them well. Next lay them on a towel to drain; put them into a stew-pan with a lump of sugar and a little broth, and let them boil over a large fire. When reduced to glaze, add a good bit of fresh butter and a little salt. Mind that the butter must adhere to the carrots when you serve up, as no sauce must be seen.
[Louis Eustache Ude, The French Cook, 1822]

Ragout Of Carrots
Scrape your carrots, and scald them in boiling water; cut them in long fillets, and put them to stew, with some butter, salt, pepper, and chopped parsley. When the carrots are done, before you serve, add some yolks of eggs. If you wish to make a ragout of carrots in a different mode, put them into a stewpan with small pieces of bacon, salt, pepper, chives, and parsley; moisten with jus and stock; then stew slowly till done enough.
[French Cookery adapted for English Families; Frances Crawford. 1853]

Tomorrow’s Story …

A Papal Penchant for Coffee.

Quotation for the Day …

I've been on a constant diet for the last two decades. I've lost a total of 789 pounds. By all accounts, I should be hanging from a charm bracelet. Erma Bombeck

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