chew your food -- 6/4/14

Today's selection -- from Gulp by Mary Roach. In the early 1900s, Horace Fletcher convinced many Americans and Europeans to chew their food until it became almost liquid, which usually involved hundreds of "mastications" per bite:

"What amazes me [about Horace Fletcher] 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 thirty-two 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 seven hundred and twenty-two mastications before disappearing through involuntary swallowing. ...

"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 Senator Robert L. Owen penned a proclamation -- a draft of which resides among the Fletcher papers -- urging the formation of a National Department of Health based on the principles of the Fletcher system. Senator 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.

Horace Fletcher

"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.' ...

"At one chew per second, the Fletcherizing of a single bite of shallot would take more than ten 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 reenliven mealtimes by hiring a quartette to sing 'The Chewing Song,' an original Kellogg composition, while diners grimly toiled. 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.' "


Mary Roach


Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright: 2013 by Mary Roach


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