Better Writing Through Better Eating

Hopefully you didn’t come here to learn which foods you should eat to turn you into the next Ian McEwan. I don’t write about food, except cheese and chocolate. My own eating bounces between healthy and a 10-year-old’s dream.

No, I’m going to share what some of the best-known writers of the nineteenth century ate. Think of it as an early celebrity diet book.

Prior to 1847, vegetarians were called Pythagoreans. I have no idea why. Maybe they were as unpopular as the man’s geometric theorems.

The Romantics (capital “R” to distinguish them from the believers in love) wrote that humans should show compassion to all living creatures whether animal or plant. Unfortunately someone figured out that would leave humans with nothing to eat.

And we know which group won that battle. Plant-eating people began to proliferate. Since they didn’t know why they were called Pythagoreans either, they decided they would be vegetarians. Less explaining to do.

As with all fads (don’t throw tomatoes, at that time it was a fad), some people took a fairly rational approach and others were more inventive. And some just had weird eating habits.

We can start with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a brilliant English poet. He was concerned with the transmigration of souls that would be brought about by eating an animal and so stopped eating them. Eventually he went back to eating meat. He died shortly before his 30th birthday. Maybe some animal didn’t want his soul?

Lord Byron could have written his own weight-loss blog. He loved starchy foods but was concerned with his weight. So he decided to create his own diet. While at university, he ate only dry biscuits and water or boiled potatoes in vinegar.

He felt that vinegar was a weight loss tool since it lessened hunger pangs and seemed to sharpen his mind. I wouldn’t be too hungry either, looking forward to a dinner of potatoes in vinegar. He did lose 70 pounds. Please feel free to try the vinegar as mental stimulant thing if you’d like.

Lord Byron may also have been the first Romantic purger. If he went to a dinner party and had to eat, he would go home and drink magnesium (as in the laxative). If he wasn’t going out, he would dress in layers of wool to sweat off some of the weight. No wonder he was so depressed.

Lewis Carroll was very fond of opium. He smoked it regularly, and when that wasn’t sufficient, he put it into snacks. Pot brownies were not an original idea in the 1960’s. It has been recorded that it gave him terrible breath, but there is no record of the impact on his weight.

Charles Dickens had a much healthier obsession: baked apples. He believed that if he ate one every day during sea travels, he would not get sea sick. Eating one upon landing would also fix the lack of balance experienced getting off the boat. I wonder how he convinced captains to load all those apples for his trips across the Atlantic? Or maybe that’s how he proved his theory.

I’m really glad I didn’t know John Keats’ doctor. Keats was diagnosed with mental exertion (no, I didn’t mistype exhaustion). His doctor prescribed a diet of (only) one anchovy and one small piece of bread daily. He was also bled daily. Oddly enough, he didn’t get any stronger. Might also have had something to with the reality that they were trying to treat tuberculosis, not a mental condition.

I will admit to not being a huge fan of the Bronte sisters. However, they grew up in poverty and often didn’t have anything to eat. Which explains why some of Charlotte’s heroines see starving themselves as a sign of strength. It’s the heart and mind that need to be strong. I probably would have liked her writing better if she’d been better fed.

Walt Whitman credited his breakfast for some of his success. Every day he had a special meat oyster breakfast plate. He said the meat was for fuel and stamina. The oysters would keep his wit and mind sharp. Maybe that was a nineteenth century euphemism for aphrodisiac.

Charles Darwin ate a small portion of meat, an egg-only omelet, and cheese. He also took ten drops of muriatic acid (now called hydrochloric acid) two times each day. He wouldn’t make any changes recommended by his doctor. He said that his diet had reduced his vomiting. Probably by burning out most of his innards.

Looking back over this, I only see one common thread. And we all knew it before we started. You need to be a little strange to be a successful writer.

(factual information courtesy of Sabine Bevers on listverse.com)

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