How a Swiss doctor created your favorite fresh gruel
There was a certain mushy slop my mom would make for breakfast when I was a kid that I enjoyed enormously—a surprise, given how ridiculously healthy it was. She would pour a big mound of steel-cut oats into a glass bowl, drench the concoction in milk, then stir in orange pieces, cut-up apples, raisins and walnuts. After the oats had soaked in the refrigerator for a sleep cycle, she’d filter out any excess liquid, add sliced bananas, and the meal was ready to consume: a thick, fresh, simple gruel that, I suppose, you might describe as some version of overnight oats. We called it Bircher muesli.
I realize I’m not making it sound that appealing, but trust me: my mouth watered for a bowl of this earthy mixture. It still does, even though I haven’t eaten Bircher muesli in ages. I’d always thought of it as some sort of mucilaginous slur denoting its squishy texture, a kind of culinary onomatopoeia. But as I found out, the meal was invented by a Swiss physician named Maximilian Bircher-Benner, who died in 1939, and without intending to, created one of Switzerland’s most popular culinary exports.
The diet Bircher-Benner recommended is remarkably in line with our health-crazed moment, rife as it is with fruitarian festivals and vegan vloggers. Bircher-Benner believed in the restorative power of raw food, after having ingested apples that cured a case of jaundice (or so he thought). And so he opened a health clinic, which he called his Vital Force sanitarium, outside Zurich in the late 1800s to spread his vegetarian gospel. Bircher-Benner’s fiber-rich muesli was a far cry from my mom’s. It mostly consisted of grated apples (skin included), and he called it his apfeldiätspeise, which translates to something like “apple diet dish.” But mixed in, too, were rolled oats, cold water, condensed milk, lemon juice and ground hazelnuts or almonds.
Bircher-Benner was not a cook, which makes me respect his recipe, considering the longevity of its appeal. His muesli (Swiss-German for “little mush”) was more a product of expediency than culinary flair or capitalism—he believed it should be served before every meal, followed by a succession of raw, mostly vegetarian dishes.
But the nutritionists of Bircher-Benner’s era spouted some dubious thoughts, and he was no exception. Bircher-Benner believed, for instance, that sunlight imbued fruits and vegetables with a special energy, depleted when cooked. He published books with titles like Brief Fundamentals of Nutritional Therapy on the Basis of the Energetic Tension in Food. Meat, he felt, contained the least energy, diet-wise, since the animal had already digested the plant matter when its cooked flesh reached your stomach.
Bircher-Benner developed a strict lifestyle and dietary regimen, which he imposed on those who visited his alpine sanitarium. Cold showers were required, as was waking at 6 a.m. to have a walk before breakfast. Alcohol, coffee, tobacco and chocolate were out of the question. The novelist Thomas Mann, one of several celebrities who visited Bircher-Benner’s sanitarium, called the place a “health jail” in 1909.
But compared to his contemporaries—like John Harvey Kellogg, obsessed with enemas and violent anti-masturbation techniques; or Webster Edgerly, the white supremacist and co-founder of Ralston-Purina who in the late 1800s attempted to create an exclusive, utopian community in Hopewell, NJ—Bircher-Benner seems remarkably tame, and even somewhat sensible.
I would, of course, never want to live by his rules, and I’m sure you wouldn’t either. I like waking up after 6 a.m., and I prefer my showers scalding. Still, that’s not what he’s remembered for, if he is remembered at all outside of health circles. Like the energy he believed to be contained in fruits and vegetables, Bircher-Benner's invisible essence clings to the muesli he created. And I thank him for it, and for my mom’s mush.