Books: Of steak and sin ..: Here's what T Coraghessan Boyle serves up to start his new novel, The Road to Wellville,. Brilliant, pungent American stuff. Great flavour, full of amoral fibre, from a book so fresh it's not out till October
Saturday 17 July 1993
The Doctor pushed reflectively at the crisp white frames of his spectacles. To all outward appearances he was a paradigm of concentration, a scientist formulating his response, but in fact he was desperately trying to summon her name - who was she, now? He knew her, didn't he? That nose, those eyes . . . he knew them all, knew them by name, a matter of pride . . . and then, in a snap, it came to him: Tindermarsh. Mrs Violet. Complaint, obesity. Underlying cause, autointoxication. Tindermarsh. Of course. He couldn't help feeling a little self-congratulatory flush of pride - nearly a thousand patients, and he could call up any one of them as plainly as if he had their charts spread out before him . . . But enough of that - the audience was stirring, a monolithic force, one great naked psyche awaiting the hand to clothe it. Dr Kellogg cleared his throat.
'My dear Mrs Tindermarsh, I do thank you for your question,' he began, hardly able to restrain his dainty feet from breaking into dance even as the perfect riposte sprang to his lips, 'but I wonder how many of those flesh-abusing pioneers lived past the age of forty?' (A murmur from the audience as the collective image of a skeletal man in coonskin cap, dead of salt pork and flapjacks, rose before their eyes.) 'And how many of them, your own reverend forebears not excepted, went to bed at night and had a minute's sleep that wasn't wracked with dyspepsia and the nightmare of carnal decay?' He paused to let that horrible thought sink in. 'I say to you, Mrs Tindermarsh, and to the rest of you ladies and gentlemen of the audience, and I say it with all my heart' - pause, two beats - 'a steak is every bit as deadly as a gun. Worse. At least if one points a gun at one's head and pulls the trigger, the end comes with merciful swiftness, but a steak - ah, the exquisite and unremitting agonies of the flesh eater, his colon clogged with its putrefactive load, the blood settling in his gut, the carnivore's rage building in his brittle heart - a steak kills day by day, minute by minute, through the martyrdom of a lifetime.'
He had them now - he could see the fear and revulsion in their eyes, the grim set of their jaws as they each inwardly totted up the steaks and sausages, the chops and pullets and geese consumed over the course of the greedy, oblivious years. 'But don't take my word for it,' he said, waving his arms expansively, 'let's be scientific about it. After all, the Sanitarium stands as a monument to biologic living and scientific analysis, a veritable University of Health. Let's just perform a little experiment here - right here, on the spur of the moment.' He ducked away from the spotlight and called out in a suddenly stentorian voice: 'Frank? Dr Frank Linniman?'
A flurry from the rear of the auditorium, movement, the craning of three hundred necks, and all at once the summoned assistant was striding briskly up the aisle, his chin thrust forward, his carriage flawless. The audience took one look at him and knew that here was a man who would unflinchingly throw himself over a cliff if his Chief required it of him.
He came to a halt before the podium and gazed up into the brilliant light. 'Yes, Doctor?'
'Do you know the Post Tavern? The finest hostelry in Battle Creek - or, for that matter, anywhere else in this grand state of Michigan?' This was nothing, a bit of stagemanship, and the Doctor had been through it a dozen times before, yet still the image of Charlie Post, blandly handsome, effortlessly tall, a very Judas of a man, rose up before him like an assassin's blade, and it ever so slightly soured the moment for him.
'I know it, Doctor.'
Dr Kellogg was a diminutive man himself. It wasn't so much that he was short, he liked to say - it was just that his legs weren't long enough. Sit him in a chair and he was as tall as the next fellow. Of course, as he'd grown into his fifties, he'd expanded a bit on the horizontal plane, but that was all right - it gave him a glow of portly health and authority, an effect he enhanced by dressing entirely in white. Tonight, as always, he was a marvel of whiteness, a Santa Claus of health, from his flawless white high-button shoes to the cusp of his Vandyke and the fine pale tenacious hair that clung to his scalp. He paused a moment to take a sip from his water glass and rinse the taste of Charlie Post from his mouth.
Setting the glass back down, he glanced up briefly and saw that the audience was hanging on his every gesture; half a dozen of them were actually gaping. He gave them a sagacious look and then focused on his assistant. 'Frank, I want you to go to the chef there - a chef of international renown, I'm told, an epicure Mr Post has imported from Paris, a Monsieur Delarain, isn't it? - and I want you to purchase the finest steak he has available and bring it back here, to this very stage, for our inspection.'
A tentative ripple of laughter, the scrape of chair legs.
'Well, go, Frank - fly. What are you waiting for?'
'A steak, sir?' Frank knew the routine, God bless him, as sturdy a straight man as you could hope to find.
'Not just a steak, Frank - the finest steak money can buy.'
Frank's face was an open book. He was guileless, as baffled as the audience, his only desire to gratify his Chief. 'I'll be back in a twinkling,' he announced, and he was already turning away, already poised to dash up the aisle, when the Doctor spoke again.
'And Frank,' he said, drawing it out, 'Frank, would you do me one other great favour?'
Silence. Not a breath expelled anywhere in the house.
'Would you stop at the livery stable and pick up a sample of another sort - for comparison, that is?' The Doctor chuckled amiably, avuncular, warm, the very avatar of geniality and good sense. 'I'm referring to a bit of, well, horse excretus' - stunned laughter, picking up now, gales of it, so lusty the sequel could barely be heard - 'about four hundred forty-eight grams, to be precise . . . or the size of a good sixteen- ounce steak.
It was a typical Monday night at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, bastion of right thinking, vegetarianism and self-improvement, citadel of temperance and dress reform, and, not coincidentally, the single healthiest spot on the planet. The women were uncorseted, the men slack in their suspenders, both sexes quietly percolating over the toxin-free load of dinner in an atmosphere cleansed of tobacco, alcohol, corned beef, mutton chops and the coffee jitters. Stomachs full, minds at rest, they were gathered in the Grand Parlor to hear their Chief instruct them on matters relating to physical well-being and its happy concomitant, longevity. They might have been at Baden or Worishofen or Saratoga, but instead they were assembled here in the ice-box of south-central Michigan - and paying a handsome price for the privilege.
IN THE thirty-one years of his directorship, Dr Kellogg had transformed the San, as it was affectionately known, from an Adventist boarding house specialising in Graham bread and water cures to the 'Temple of Health' it had now become, a place celebrated from coast to coast - and across the great wide weltering Atlantic to London, Paris, Heidelberg and beyond. Twenty-eight hundred patients annually passed through its portals, and one thousand employees, including twenty full-time physicians and three hundred nurses and bath attendants, saw to their needs.
And the impresario, the overseer, the presiding genius behind it all, was John Harvey Kellogg. Preaching dietary restraint and the simple life, he eased overweight housewives and dyspeptic businessmen along the path to enlightenment and recovery. Severe cases - the cancerous, the moribund, the mentally unbalanced and the disfigured - were rejected. The San's patients tended to be of a certain class, and they really had no interest in sitting across the dining table from the plebeian or the pedestrian or those who had the bad grace to be truly and dangerously ill. No, they came to the San to see and be seen; to mingle with the celebrated, the rich and the preposterously rich; to think positively, eat wisely and subdue their afflictions with a good long pious round of pampering, abstention and rest.
At this juncture, in the fall of 1907, the San numbered among its guests such luminaries as Admiral Nieblock of the US Naval Academy, Upton and Meta Sinclair, Horace B Fletcher, and Tiepolo Cappucini, the great Italian tenor, as well as a smattering of state and national legislators, captains of industry, entertainers and assorted dukes, contessas and baronets. On the horizon were visits by Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, Admiral Richard M Byrd and the voluminous William Howard Taft. Dr Kellogg was no fool, and he extracted as much benefit as he could from these dignitaries, in terms of both promotional service and raw cash donations.
In the fifteen minutes it took Frank Linniman to trot down to the Post Tavern and back, the Doctor fielded two more questions. The first was from a gentleman in the rear (Mr Abernathy, wasn't it? Gout, consumption and nerves?) who wanted to know of the dangers of tight-lacing among fashionable females who unnaturally constricted their mid-sections to achieve the 'wedding ring' waist. The Doctor repeated the question for the benefit of those up front who might not have heard, and then, after stroking the white silk of his beard a moment, shot an admonitory forefinger into the air. 'My dear sir, I can tell you without exaggeration that if the number of deaths recorded annually as a result of just such frivolous tight-lacing were properly recorded, you would be truly appalled. As a medical intern at Bellevue, I had occasion to be present for the autopsy of one such unfortunate woman - a woman, I might add, not yet out of her twenties. In any case, we found to our astonishment that her organs had been totally disarranged, the liver pushed up into the lungs and the intestines so effectively blocked they might just as well have been stoppered with a cork.' He shook his fine head wearily and let out a sigh that could be heard in the back row. 'A pity,' he said, his voice cast low. 'I tell you, it brought tears to my eyes.'
The second question was from a tall and very striking young woman in the fifth row, whose skin, unfortunately, had a faint greenish cast to it. (Muntz, Miss Ida; greensickness, autointoxication.) She rose, visibly excited at the thought of all those curious eyes upon her, and cleared her throat. 'Doctor,' she asked in a plaintive, demure voice, 'could you please give us your opinion of cigarette smoking, as practised in private, of course, among young ladies of today?'
Dr Kellogg furrowed his brows. He was furious, incensed, a tower of righteous strength and indignation. He paused to let his gaze fall upon the recidivist cigar and cigarette smokers among the audience. 'Madame - or should I say Mademoiselle? Mademoiselle Muntz, I have only this to say, and it applies equally to both sexes. Tobacco' - and here the Doctor let a long shudder run through him - 'tobacco destroys the sex glands.'
Someone gasped. Miss Muntz sank into her seat, stricken. The Doctor held his stony gaze. 'And that,' he said, 'is a medically proven fact.'
It was at this moment that Dr Linniman dashed through the rear door, an air of breathless urgency about him, two identical packages wrapped in white butcher paper held out before him in offering.
'Ah,' the Doctor exclaimed, pushing at his spectacles, 'Dr Linniman.' And then he lifted his head to address the audience at large. 'And now, to return, if we may, to Mrs Tindermarsh's query regarding porterhouse steak and its value as a food source.' He broke off here to lean forward and give Dr Linniman, who now stood before him, these further instructions: 'Frank, would you examine the scales, please, weigh the respective samples and prepare slides of a precisely equal portion of each? Thank you.'
A murmur from the audience. A few titters, a spatter of applause.
'Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to provide you with a pair of demonstrations that should, I would fervently hope, forever turn you away from such a disgusting and unnatural food as this. I say 'disgusting' because of its high bacterial content - a content I will show to be equal to or greater than that of barnyard ordure - and I say 'unnatural' because this flesh food is an innovation and corruption of modern man, whose ancestors have been proven by such eminent researchers as Von Freiling in Germany and Du Pomme of the Pasteur Institute to be exclusively frugivorous. And, too, I will assert that such foods are in fact 'sinful', as Mrs Tindermarsh would have it, not only in the sin occasioned by the taking of the lives of our fellow creatures - and I would think that the piteous bleats of those blameless herds led to slaughter would ring in the ears of any flesh eater the moment his head hits the pillow at night - but in the very greatest sin of all, and that is, of course, in polluting the temple of the human body.'
The audience was hushed now, sitting rapt and motionless in the orthopaedically correct chairs the Doctor had himself designed. Someone - was that Mr Praetz, of Cleveland? - suppressed a cough.
'Frank?' The Doctor swivelled round briskly to where Dr Linniman had joined him at the rear of the small stage. 'Are we ready?'
A plain deal table stood just behind him; on it, conspicuously displayed, were the beefsteak from the Post Tavern and the grainy pungent sample from the livery stable. Between these two exhibits, Dr Linniman had set up a matching pair of microscopes and a small naked incandescent bulb for illumination. 'Yes, sir,' he answered. 'All ready.'
'Good.' Turning once more to the audience, Dr Kellogg flashed a toothy smile and rubbed his hands together with relish. 'Now, we'll need a disinterested party as observer - do I have any volunteers? No? How about you, Miss Muntz?'
ALITTLE gasp, a titter, and there, in the fifth row, was Miss Muntz, colouring prettily. 'Don't be shy, Miss Muntz - this is all in the interest of science.' There were murmurs of encouragement, and in the next moment Miss Ida Muntz was clutching the sides of her skirts and making her way up the aisle, where she daintily mounted the three steps to the podium.
'Now, Miss Muntz,' the Doctor began, and he momentarily lost his train of thought as he saw how she towered over him - she was pretty, yes, and she gave them something to look at, greensickness and all, but he should have thought to choose someone with a little less legbone, for God's sake. He fumbled a moment, uncharacteristically, and repeated himself. 'Miss Muntz. Miss Muntz, I would like you to examine the slides beneath these identical microscopes and describe to us what you see, remembering that only Dr Linniman knows which of these specimens is Mrs Tindermarsh's beefsteak and which the, well' - laughter from the audience - 'the waste product of an animal very much like the one sacrificed for the venal tastes of the gourmands at the Post Tavern.'
The moment was exquisite: the girl bent prettily over the microscope, the men leaning forward in their seats for a better look, the women smiling secret smiles, the Doctor, as ever, conscious of his control, his benevolence, his wisdom - shepherd to his flock. 'And would you describe for us what you see in the first exhibit, my dear?'
'Um, it's black - or no, now I see . . .'
'Tiny things. Moving. Like, like bits of straw or rice - only alive.'
'Good, very good, Miss Muntz. Those are bacteria' - the Doctor turned to face the audience now - 'and they are truncated, like bits of rice, as you say, because they are unfriendly bacteria, the B welchii, B coli and Proteus vulgaris we so often find in the stool of our incoming patients here at the Sanitarium. And could you accurately count the bacteria for us, Miss Muntz?'
She turned her head now, looking up at him out of a bright crystalline eye, and gave a little cry of surprise. 'Oh, no, Doctor - there are so many hundreds and hundreds of them.'
'And now, Miss Muntz, would you do us the great favor of examining the sample beneath the second microscope?'
A flutter of skirts, a quick reassuring touch-up of the coiffure and millinery, and Miss Muntz was bent over the second microscope.
'Would you describe what you see now, Miss Muntz?'
'Yes, Doctor, it's . . . it's much the same thing -'
The audience breathed out, a ripple that became a tidal wave.
'And could you count the bacteria in this sample?'
'Oh, no, Doctor -'
'But would you say that there are fewer or more than in the first sample?'
Her eye still affixed to the aperture of the lens, Miss Muntz tugged unconsciously at a loose strand of hair and let her voice drop reflectively. 'This one is, is more cluttered. A lot more.'
'Would you say there were half as many more in this sample?'
'Oh, yes,' Miss Muntz breathed, taking her eye from the lens and straightening up to face the Doctor and the crowd ranged myopically behind him. 'Yes, at least, Doctor - at least half as many more . . .'
'Very good. And now, Dr Linniman, would you please reveal to the audience the identity of each of these slides?'
Frank's face was perfectly composed - wonderful, wonderful, thought the Doctor, a rush of triumph building in him. How he loved this life]
'The first slide -'
' - this is the sample from the livery stable.'
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