The Victorian "chew-chew cult" encouraged you to make smoothies in your mouth
Credit: photo by Sheri Blaney via getty images

In January 1904, William James did not have time to read his brother’s new novel The Ambassadors. Perhaps his mouth was too full. He was busy becoming “a muncher,” as he admitted to Henry, and was immersed in reading the works of “the great masticator” Horace Fletcher. Along with this letter, William enclosed a copy of “The New Glutton” and “A.B.-Z. Of our own nutrition” along with his own ringing endorsement of “Fletcherizing,” the Victorian diet craze whose number one tenet was chewing. Whether it meant chewing ten times or a hundred times, the chewing guru Fletcher preached that for optimal absorption food must be reduced to tiny particles and blended evenly with saliva. In other words, to prevent loss of nutrients over the course of digestion, dieters had to transform their mouths into primitive kitchen gadgets—something between a Vitamix and sous-vide machine.

It may seem surprising that a couple of the turn-of-the-century’s dignified men of letters would be into a fad diet, especially one that revolved around the art of making in-mouth purées, but into it they were. Both lived the sedentary life of writers, both had gout, both were ready to put their faith in the “chew chew cult,” as it was called. It was not simply health woes that got their jaws moving; the charismatic Horace Fletcher may have been part of the attraction. It’s easy to imagine Fletcher as nothing but a creepy, chewing-fixated nerd, chomping and smacking his way through cocktail hours and dinner parties, but he was widely traveled and kept a broad social circle. The James brothers were not the only eminent persons to rub elbows with him or visit him at his Venice Palazzo. There were other writers, like Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Franz Kafka. Thomas Edison and John D. Rockefeller both tried their hands at Fletcherizing too.

Although the headline of Horace Fletcher’s “dietetic righteousness” was to chew a lot, and the verb for “to chew a lot” became Fletcher’s namesake, the idea didn’t start with him. British Prime Minister William Gladstone was the one who first preached chewing publicly, and he was more specific—chew 32 times so that the food has a shot at hitting each tooth. Fletcher claimed that it took food even longer to liquify and “swallow itself,” but he did not believe the rite was purely mechanical. In fact, he was an adamant evangelist of “head digestion,” believing that one could set the tone for all digestion that happened “below the guillotine line,” not just with the chewing workout, but with a total emotional and sensory approach to the humblest morsel. He referred to the mouth as the “three inches of personal responsibility.”

In a way—and Fletcher is not shy about this at all—the whole concept was a practical repackaging of Epicurean philosophy: develop and focus the senses, savor that sensation until its absolute dissolution. Chewing became a philosophy and a cure-all. Fletcher claimed that intensifying “head digestion” would not only relieve the need for over-indulgence in food, but in alcohol as well. And it would save you money! It would make you strong!

After years touring, writing prolifically, and performing feats of strength, Fletcher began to downplay the role chewing itself played in his credo. Frustrated enough by his one note reputation, in 1907 he wrote another book, Fletcherism: What It Is, where he insisted that “any person who eats in a healthy manner is a Fletcherite. Any person who eats in a polite manner is a Fletcherite.” He wanted to be universal rather than gross, and he really had to stretch the definition of Fletcherizing to do that. He suggested that one might Fletcherize people—nothing cannibalistic here, purely metaphorical—to find friends who are truly compatible. He suggested Fletcherizing water just to see what sensations the water might be generous enough to share, warning “do not think that inanimate things have no sense of propriety!”

In fact, as the practice evolved, the focus shifted from the psychology of chewing to the practice of abstaining. As Henry James observed Fletcher’s eating habits over the course of a visit, Fletcher ate only about one Welsh Rarebit every 48 hours. Fletcher was proud that this fully mouth-processed food satisfied him to the point where breakfast and dinner folded themselves into a single lunchtime meal, if that. Skipping meals was a pleasure, he claimed, one that he compared to collecting coupons for these lost repasts: “The feeling of possession is a joy in itself; and the ability to collect the proceeds when needed and at leisure is comfortable rather than uncomfortable.”

Maybe the tedium of chewing helped establish this take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards passing, foodless mealtimes. Predictably, portly Henry James fell out of love with the practice within a few years, claiming mysteriously to his brother that some “queer lights on the practice” had come to him. And the fad died along with its celebrity cadre. With the exception of a few particularly hard-to-digest foods like peanuts, corn hulls and raw meat, it turns out there is no magic in “head digestion”—the gut does a fine job breaking down what the mouth doesn’t. But we can all agree that chewing is more than just a way to keep from choking. There is pleasure there! And if you prolong your chomping enough, it turns out you might just have given your body time to feel satisfied before you’re tempted to stuff yourself. So, don’t gobble your food, and certainly don’t chug your smoothies.