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The Vita-veg Days

How Hollywood Became the Exotic Diet Capital of the World

March 08, 2000|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the 1920s, Los Angeles teemed with diet gurus promising not just better health but eternal youth and transcendent vitality. It wore its crown with careless ease, as if it had always been the exotic diet capital of the world.

But just 20 years earlier, the capital had been, of all places, a small town in Michigan named Battle Creek. That was where John H. Kellogg had built a famous sanitarium on the goodness of grain.

Two of Kellogg's grain products have conquered the world. One is cornflakes. The other is granola, originally a brand name belonging to Sanitas, the Kellogg health food company. Sanitas advertised its granola, which was in effect a rich cookie crumbled and served as a breakfast cereal, as "a delicious, digestible, fattening food." (At the time, most diets were designed to increase your weight. Reducing diets didn't come in till the '20s.)

All this had been heady, cutting-edge stuff in its time, but after all, the Kellogg diet was sober lacto-ovo vegetarianism. In the 1920s, Southern California food gurus were preaching wild, radical diets that viewed grain with suspicion--even considered it a leading health menace.

Basically, they said, you should eat nothing but fresh fruits and vegetables. And let's face it, Battle Creek--fresh produce could be hard to find in, say, Michigan in the depths of February, whereas it was available year-round in Southern California (like sunbathing, another of their favorite prescriptions).

Did the gurus come here for that reason, or were they just exploiting the specialites de la region? Whatever the reason, by the late '20s, Los Angeles, and particularly Hollywood, had stores where you could get fig coffee, grain-free uncooked pies, alkaline bread, non-devitalized vegetable salt and even bubbling oxygenated tooth powder. For decades afterward, "Hollywood" (as in "Hollywood bread") would be a shorthand term for exotic diet food.

It was obvious how this happened. In the '20s, Southern California was a favorite retirement destination--the land of sunshine, where Midwesterners could spend their golden years without ever having to shovel another sidewalk. The retirees had an obvious interest in health. But film actors were even more keenly interested.

The movies had created a totally new kind of celebrity. If you were the most famous actor on Broadway, perhaps tens of thousands of people had seen you, but even a middling film star was known to millions all over the world. Unfortunately, this dizzying mass adulation was fickle. The camera has no pity; a close-up shows flaws nobody would ever get close enough to notice in a stage actor.

And once you lost your looks, you were on the scrap heap. Hollywood's feverish quest for youth had begun.

The scholarly grand old man of L.A. food gurus was Otto Carque (1867-1936), some of whose books were still in print as late as the 1970s. Like the other local diet proponents, he prescribed exercise, fresh air and nude sunbathing for nearly every complaint, but his personal theme was alkalinity.

Before scientists started to unravel the mystery of metabolism in the 19th century, doctors had usually thought of diet in terms of balancing abstract principles such as heat versus cold or moisture versus dryness. To Carque it was alkalinity versus acidity, and modern people were in constant danger of excessive acidity. Even breakfast cereal was troublingly deficient in alkalinity.

The main sources of alkalinity (which to him meant the presence of sodium, potassium or metallic minerals such as iron and copper) were fruits--conveniently, for Southern California, including citrus fruits. Carque was rather peeved with people who couldn't see that lemon juice was alkaline.

Salt was a possible source of sodium, of course, but not so fast with that salt shaker--ordinary table salt, even if it was made from sea salt rather than rock salt, "consists of crude particles too coarse and large to be taken up by the blood corpuscles," Carque wrote. To be assimilated by the body, salt had to be derived from plant products.

Others took up the vegetable salt idea during the '20s and warned that "inorganic salt" caused rheumatism, eczema and tuberculosis. Fortunately, L.A. health stores stocked nearly a dozen brands of vegetable salt at the time, including Eka-Salt, Nu-Vege-Sal, Vita-Veg and Sal-Ray.

*

Arnold Ehret, who died in 1922, spent only the last 10 years of his life in Los Angeles but left a vigorous following--his book "The Mucusless Diet" has been in print ever since the early '20s. Like many a deviser of a radical diet, Ehret was plagued with multiple ailments until he underwent a crisis and developed his own regimen of exercises and diet--basically, taking no food but grape juice--which gave him a sense of supernatural energy. These days, a psychologist would probably suspect that his complaints had been at least partly psychosomatic.

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