Wacky Diet Fads from the Past

As we gear up for the Great Rare Books Bake-off, our spectacular annual dive into the historic cookbooks in Special Collections and Archives, I’ve started to shop around in the collections for a recipe to try out. 

In the past my household resurrected a recipe for cheese crackers, and tested a hot brandy punch cocktail that could knock your socks off. This year I’ve had to make some changes to my diet for health reasons (and some foods are off-limits to me because we’re expecting a baby in April), so I thought I’d explore the wacky world of diet-focused recipes in the collections. 

One of my favorite podcasts is Maintenance Phase, which has the tagline “Wellness and weight loss, debunked and decoded.” Hosts Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon take listeners on a journey into the quackery of diet culture, covering topics like Goop, Keto, BMI, and the presidential fitness test. Some of my favorite episodes are when they focus on a diet book, like Ed McMahon’s Slimming Down, Angela Lansbury’s Positive Moves, or The Karl Lagerfeld Diet. The recommendations in these books can be strange, hilarious, or even downright dangerous.  (Have no fear, my personal hero Angela Lansbury has one of the best of these celebrity diet/lifestyle books.)

I was hoping I could find some diet/health-focused books in Special Collections & Archives, or at least some recipes with purported health benefits, for my Great Rare Books Bake Off blog post in November. Right now, here are some of the options I have: 

  1. Aurora Rebeka Lodge #29, I.O.O.F., Bradenton Florida <Cookbook>

This cookbook was created by a lodge within a “fraternal order,” the “Independent Order of Odd Fellows.” Lodge #29 developed a cookbook based on recipes submitted by their members. 

The cookbook includes “‘Weight control’ with caloric tables and 2 reducing diets and 2 weight gaining diets by Dr. James D. Orr, P.T., Dietician and Physio-Therapist of the Gateway Health Institute, Kansas City Missouri,” according to the catalog entry for the book.

  1.  What’s Cookin’? In Kissimmee

What’s Cookin’ was created by members of the Kissimmee Women’s Club in 1948, but it ALSO includes “‘Weight control’ with caloric tables and 2 reducing diets and 2 weight gaining diets by Dr. James D. Orr.” It turns out that there was a company in Kansas City that would publish cookbooks by different social organizations across the country, but if you published with them they’d include Dr. Orr’s diet recommendations!

This one also includes “Beauty hints: tips for the stout woman.” Yikes. I’m sure there will be some pseudoscientific gems in there!

  1. A collection of recipes for the use of special diet kitchens in military hospitals

Published by the Christian Commission in 1864, this book includes recipes less for weight loss, and more for the general health of people who were patients in military hospitals. Some of the foods sound delicious, like “Apple Pudding,” “Mrs. Wilcox’s Wine Jelly,” and “Ginger Bread.” The more health-focused recipes, like Beef Tea, could be a challenge for the palate, especially with my aversion to meat smells. 

  1. The art of cookery, made plain and easy

Written by Hannah Glasse in 1751, The Art of Cookery has a section called “Directions for the Sick,” which includes how “To make Buttered Water” and “Water Gruel.” The meats are primarily boiled, not something I’d particularly like to do, but for Rare Books Bake Off we end up using cooking methods we typically wouldn’t. An easy recipe that sounds pretty good is for “Sage Drink,” which sounds like it would be pretty refreshing – though I wonder how effective it would be with non-alcoholic white wine?

  1. A look into new life.

This slim volume written by Kate Hatcher Porter in 1956 is about as un-scientific as it can get. Porter claims to have been cured of blindness by experimental medical practices and an improved diet. In addition to recipes (for a diet that might cure blindness?), she includes guides for posture, breathing, bathing, etc. I’d love to dive into this wacky prescription for life and test out these “magical” recipes.

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