Excerpt - Meat: A Love Story
"The Sexy Chicken is my favorite," declares a paunchy man with pale blue eyes that gleam like marbles under the warm glow of the kitchen lights where a group of forty has gathered this evening for dinner.
"Do you know why I call it that?" Aajonous Vonderplanitz asks rhetorically, scanning the room before locking his gaze upon a busty Cameron Diaz look-alike. "I call it Sexy Chicken, because it makes you really, really horny."
An older couple holding hands on my right exchange a come-hither look. Clearly, at four dollars a pound, it’s a low-cost alternative to Viagra, although it’s unlikely that Sexy Chicken would ever get the Food and Drug Administration’s safety stamp of approval.
"Is the recipe in your new cookbook?" queries a dishy young man with glossy dark locks, perfect teeth and a chin that looks chiseled straight out of the Colorado Rockies beneath our feet. The crowd erupts with laughter. Apparently, I’m in good company. Pretty boy’s a rookie too. "It’s not a cookbook," Vonderplanitz grunts derisively. "On the Primal Diet, we don’t cook anything."
It’s more than simply a matter of semantics. Those who follow the Primal Diet don’t order in, pick it up from the caterers or have others prep the meal for them. The cuts of meat here are not prepared in any traditional sense. They’ve never seen the inside of an oven or touched a grill. Their temperature is determined by nothing more than the setting on the thermostat—they’re served, that is, at room temperature.
This is a raw-meat potluck. The ultimate in fast food. And the people gathered here, in one of North America’s most exclusive play-grounds, have come to dine on dishes like Sexy Chicken, Orange-Glazed Duck, Meat au Gratin and Steak Tartare. But this is more than a meeting of raw-meat gourmets, a sharing of Epicurean secrets. The diners milling around the buffet table tonight are deadly serious about their diet. A diet that’s similar to the one Homo erectus consumed when he first roamed the savanna more than ten thousand years ago. A typical day’s feast? Several raw eggs, a pound of raw meat and a cou-ple of green salad shakes. In fact, many of the people here to gnaw on raw animal flesh behind the cover of silk drapes in this swank Aspen mansion are former vegetarians. They’ve come from as far away as Connecticut and Arizona to find a cure for everything from cellulite, acne and depression to multiple sclerosis and cancer. But first, they’re going to learn how eating like a cave-dweller will have them swinging from the trees.
"When I was a fruitarian, ejaculatory orgasm was pleasurable but exhausting," Vonderplanitz explains with the same matter-of-fact tone he will employ in a detailed discussion of bowel movements following dinner. "I got depressed and irritable if I had regular ejaculations." I suddenly have an urge to invoke the polite "table talk" rule, but I can’t get my jaw off the ground fast enough to steer Vonderplanitz away from his unusual prescription for the boudoir blues. "Now that I con-sume so much raw protein and fat," he continues, "I enjoy sex from one to six hours daily and have up to three ejaculations. I finally feel like I have achieved heaven on earth."
To some twenty thousand North Americans reportedly following his Primal Diet, Vonderplanitz is a messiah for the new millennium. His prodigious claims are a strange brew of New Age meets Stone Age. Think caveman and add chimes and crystals.
He says he played a construction worker on General Hospital before finding his calling as a nutritional palm-reader, iridologist and "scientist." This evening, the sixty-year-old Vonderplanitz (who’s also been known as John Richard Swigart, John Planitz, Richard Garritt and Brock Bison) is dressed as Everyman. Light-colored khakis, long-sleeved gray T- shirt and hiking boots. His hair is the color of ginger- bread and has the texture of a Chia Pet in full bloom. It frames a face scorched by too many noonday sessions at the pool. With his looks, he’d be perfect to play a desert-island castaway. But look deep into his crystalline eyes, he explains, and you’ll see he has the internal organs of a man twenty years younger. That’s the miracle of a diet that’s more than 90 percent raw meat and fat. Eating food laced with microbes like E. coli and salmonella—the "janitors," the "clean-up crew"—he claims has helped cure him of ills that include diabetes, autism, and bone and blood cancer. A diet fit for the gods—including a string of Hollywood celebrities that reportedly includes Mel Gibson, who has on more than one occasion extolled the virtues of eating like a tiger.
Tonight’s potluck is hosted by Kim, a slinky woman in her early forties clad in all-black with a cascade of dark hair sweeping midway down her back. She slopes her way around the room from guest to guest, making introductions while her pet rabbit Vanilla hops under-foot. The local fixer, she’s a former pharmaceutical saleswoman and a self-taught nutritionist, who hopes to spread the word about the pure primal pleasure of dining on uncooked meat. It’s an eclectic crowd. There’s Mary, Pat, Robert, Lisa, Fabio and a Cher among us, drawn from all age groups and social strata, from high-tech moguls to sweat-lodge owners and hippy-dippy snowboarders.
The introductions out of the way, the group forms a line at the buffet table. "Chicken ceviche!" someone squeals. I can’t tell if it’s a shriek of delight or horror, because for staunch meat-eaters like me, the only thing crazier than no meat is raw meat. One more look at the buffet table piled with caveman nibbles and meat-slushies and I’m ready to flee. As the odd woman out, I feel prudish, fanatical, kooky. This, I think to myself, is how my tofu-lovin’ boyfriend must feel: the spoil-sport of the banquet, who secretly irks every carnivorous host com-pelled to add a veggie dish to the carefully planned menu.
Aspen seems an ideal backdrop for a celebratory meat fest. Located in the clouds—some eight thousand feet atop the Rocky Mountains—it was once the summer hunting grounds of the Ute Indians. And al-though these days you’re more likely to be shooting elk with your camera than with a gun, demand is booming in the town’s chi-chi restaurants for factory-free, low-fat meats like elk, bison and venison. And consider this fashion fact: Aspen may well be the only place in North America where a full- length fur coat is still a manly garment.
But it’s more than that. Maybe it started with the prospectors who flocked to the town at the height of the silver rush in the 1870s. Or with Walter Paepcke in the 1940s, a wealthy industrialist who wanted to create the "Aspen Idea." He hoped to transform Aspen from a mining town into a cultural utopia, a place where great thinkers would come to renew their spirits and exchange ideas. Whatever Paepcke had in mind, it probably wasn’t what Hunter S. Thompson envisioned when he ran for local sheriff on the "freak power" ticket. By the time the grand-daddy of gonzo journalism narrowly lost the election in the mid- 1970s, Aspen was already a well-established haven for misfits and oddballs. A countercultural sanctuary for renegades like Thompson, who drank away his days and nights with a liquid diet of Nyquil and Wild Turkey. In other words, a place that would welcome a group such as this, whose collective mantra could be "Eat Shit and Live."
It is with this in mind that I find myself at the end of the buffet line with an empty plate in hand. Some guests, like Aaron, have gone primitive and opted out of cutlery and china altogether. He’s cutting a New York steak with scissors and eating directly from the supermarket Styrofoam. "It’s like sushi," the effervescent acupuncturist and the town’s longest Primal Diet devotee explains. "You’ve got to cut against the grain. It’s the same trick," he says, plopping a cube of meat in his mouth. "When you start to eat all raw, you go, ‘Wow! Wow!’ It’s from the higher vibration of the food. You get feeling better and clearer in your mind, and eventually you have no fear about bacteria. You finally realize you don’t have to rely on outside entities for your healthcare. You can take care of yourself."
It’s a recurring theme this evening. Just as the hippies of the early 1960s sought to wrest the food supply out of the hands of corporations, the people here tonight see the Primal Diet as a kind of personal vindication, as a victory against the establishment: a conspiracy of big government, big pharma, HMOs and Fortune 500 companies. These raw-meat rebels are driven by the most American of impulses: the rejection of authority. They are asserting their independence in a world where much of what we eat is handed to us through a window by a kid dressed in a polyester costume who asks, "Do you want fries with that?" oblivious to the nutritional and environmental devastation caused by his company’s nuggets and burgers.
Robert was once one of those kids. These days, he’d never eat at McDonald’s, never eat meat from a factory farm. But he admits his convictions have made him some strange bedfellows. The gun-toting, red-plaid crowd, for example, who are going to teach him how to stalk, kill and dress his own animals. "I never thought I’d take up hunting," explains the hip thirty-something, similar in mien to Elvis Costello in his thick black-framed glasses and a velvet dinner jacket—which is to say, he’s a long way from the hunting lodge. "I like the idea of being completely self- sufficient. And eating food that’s free of poisons."
Scanning tonight’s spread, I want to tell him that the poison thing is debatable. But I bite my tongue, hoping he’ll offer a recommendation.
"I couldn’t do the raw chicken," he tells me. "I’ll never go there. So, I opted for the raw elk liver instead."
"And?" I ask. "Was it good?"
Judging from the flicker of disgust that flashes across his face, I rightly figure it’s not a rave. "It crunched like a carrot," he says. "Had the feel of an oyster and tasted like liver. It was truly frightening."
I feel an eating disorder coming on. It’s not just the thought of eating mystery meats. I’m panicked by the idea of eating foodstuffs I’ve been taught to avoid for dear life. Raw meat potentially laced with pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7, salmonella, campylobacter and listeria. It seems every day there’s another recall of meat tainted with E. coli. One day, it’s forty thousand pounds of beef shipped to Wal-Mart stores in twelve states; the next, it’s 5.7 million pounds shipped across the West from a beef purveyor in California. In the United States, an estimated seventy-three thousand Americans are sickened and another sixty-one die each year after eating food contaminated with E. coli, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The bacteria is most commonly found in raw and undercooked meat, as well as in bean sprouts, spinach, and unpasteurized ciders and juices.
Salmonella packs an even more lethal punch, killing about seven hundred people in the United States every year. In late 2006, Consumer Reports tested more than five hundred assorted chickens and found that 15 percent of them were infected with salmonella and more than half were infected with the campylobacter bacterium. Salmonella is found not only on raw and undercooked meats and poultry, but on shrimp, eggs and dairy, and on fresh produce, chocolate and unpasteurized orange juice. While the CDC reports about forty thousand poisonings from salmonella each year, it estimates the actual number is likely thirty times higher.
It’s little wonder that health authorities go apoplectic when they hear stories of consumers willingly chowing down on raw meat. "It’s kind of crazy," says Toronto nutritionist Fran Berkoff. "You can get really, really sick. Or worse. There might have been a time in our history when we didn’t have to cook meat like we do now, but these days it’s really a safety issue. People will say, ‘Show me a chicken that’s got salmonella.’ But all you need is one to make you really ill. Besides, it’s incredibly gross."
There has been a dramatic rise in consumer demand in both Canada and the United States for raw dairy products teeming with many of the same kind of bacteria found in raw meat. Black markets are booming even as police crack down on producers in jurisdictions where it’s illegal to sell raw dairy products. In late 2006, one of Canada’s most feted chefs rallied to the cause of a local farmer shut down for selling raw dairy products to hundreds of Toronto families. Chef Jamie Kennedy lined up alongside dozens of customers who waved placards like hardened protestors to oppose the police’s confiscation of bottled raw milk and blocks of unpasteurized cheese. Kennedy argued alongside like-minded consumers that raw dairy contains natural enzymes, antibodies and vitamins that are destroyed in the heating process of pasteurization. Despite the consumer surge, health authorities aren’t swayed. They warn of lurking pathogens, pointing to recent outbreaks of illnesses.
Meanwhile, Aaron, the glowing acupuncturist, assures me there’s nothing to worry about. The meat being served here at the raw-meat potluck is the good stuff—it’s organic, and it’s not going to make me sick. Armed with the CDC stats, I figure I have less chance of dying from E. coli than from salmonella. So I set my sights on a scrap of carpaccio, gussied up with bocconcini, tomato and basil, the equivalent of Primal Diet pabulum, specially made for novices like me. I know it's a dish that’s been relished around the world for centuries and, more recently, a hot seller at high-end restaurants, but I’ve never had a hankering for raw meat. So, you’ll have to forgive my wimpiness.
I try to mobilize my inner warhorse, contemplating the words of my favorite, bad-boy food scribe, Anthony Bourdain, who explained in his blockbuster book Kitchen Confidential, "Good eating is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food for me has always been an adventure." I cross myself, raise my meat to my mouth, when I’m suddenly saved by divine intervention. Vonderplanitz calls an end to dinner and the beginning of the evening’s discussion.
We gather in the living room, squeezed side-by-each on leather couches and oversized ottomans. Vonderplanitz claims a seat at the front of the room, perched like a lion overlooking a den of cubs.
"Dr. Aajonous," a whippet-thin woman with a pinched face begins, "do I really need to put on ten pounds to heal?" Here in the land of the scrawny haunches, it seems that asking Kate Moss wannabes to eat shit is one thing—but asking them to swap their size zero for a size six? It’s tantamount to lunacy. As with any diet, however, success requires self-denial. Here, it seems, you can keep your BMW but not your runway-model looks.
Vonderplanitz calls it like he sees it. "Women like you wouldn’t have been given much of a second look in earlier times," he tells her. I look around me, observing this super-class of cadavers shift nervously in their seats while the woman who posed the question visibly deflates. Vonderplanitz explains, using terminology that runs from the pseudo- technical to the sophomoric, that the cycle of weight gain and loss helps rid the body of toxins typically stored in fat. In the past, he says, we had an intuitive understanding of the link between health and fat. "A heavy-set, Rubenesque woman was probably considered the best asset that a man could have, when they were considering women as assets. A man would look at a skinny woman and say, ‘Oh, poor thing.’ She couldn’t get married off. No one would take her."
He admits to a personal penchant for beefy women. No skin-and-bones types for him. In fact, it was modeling icon Twiggy herself who turned him off skinny women forever. "In 1972," he explains, playing up his minor, long-ago celebrity, "at the request of my publicity agent, I took Twiggy to the Butterflies Are Free premier at the Westwood. Everybody was so intimidated by this young girl. But she was a hyper-active basket-case. I mean, she was an emotional roller coaster. I couldn’t handle it. I never called her again."
The moral of his story? "Fat, mellow and happy. That’s a better way to live," he says.
A shy middle-aged and neatly coiffed woman, in a twin-set and freshly pressed khakis, falters in a childlike voice as she begins to recount her own story of what led her to the Primal Diet. A few years ago, both she and her husband were diagnosed with Lyme disease. For two years, the couple meticulously followed doctor’s or-ders, swallowing one prescription of antibiotics after another. But when traditional medicine didn’t work, they started looking for alternative ways of healing, eventually stumbling upon the Primal Diet. They’ve been following it for months. The only problem? "Well, I don’t know how to say this," she says, sotto voce. "It’s the parasites. I have para-sites, and I’m having trouble getting rid of them."
You’d think it might be a conversation killer. In days past, guests would head for the drawing room after dinner for some amusing chatter or a game of charades. But at a raw-meat potluck, nothing seems to get an after-dinner conversation rocking like talk of parasites. Everyone’s got war stories, but naturally no one can top the guru’s. "I was in Vietnam when I shat out a forty-five-foot tapeworm," Vonderplanitz an- nounces, waving his hands excitedly. His students nod appreciatively. "I know how long it was because I chased it across the room and measured it. Then, for some reason, I had a craving for onions. I ate two of them and immediately felt better."
Orange alert. My head is spinning. Maybe I’m suffering low blood sugar from my no-cal dinner. Truthfully, I couldn’t feel worse if it were me passing the forty-five-foot tapeworm. I’m grateful when I realize that talk has shifted from the practical aspects of intestinal free-loaders to the theoretical—although some might say heretical: the "science" behind the doctor’s Primal Diet (while he doesn’t discourage his "patients" from referring to him as a medical doctor, he tells me, he prefers to be referred to as a scientist and claims to have a Ph.D. in nu-trition). "Modern medicine’s fear of pathogens is based on speculation, fear and junk science," Vonderplanitz explains. "The idea that microbes are always harmful and must be eradicated is based on ignorance. Health department officials are living in the cerebral Dark Ages.
"I say, crack some eggs. Let them get rotten. Eat your raw meat with your salmonella, eat your E. coli," he’s shouting now, pumping his fists in the air for emphasis. "They are your body’s janitors. They go in there and eat up the damaged tissues. They eat your cancers."
Extreme cases sometimes call for more extreme measures, he con-tinues. Sometimes terminal cancer patients find a speedier recovery dining on "high meat"—animal flesh that has been aged for a few months in the fridge so that it is completely decomposed and swim-ming in worms and bacteria. Or by dining directly on the feces of a healthy herbivore; a gopher, a sheep or a goat, for example.
Who am I—a liberal arts major—to argue with science? To question such astonishing success? More than 90 percent of cancer victims following the Primal Diet, Vonderplanitz tells us, are now in remission. Unfortunately, he has no scientific documentation to back this up, and no researchers have followed his lead. When asked about that, he has a ready answer. Keeping records, he explains, might be construed as a medical act and land him in deep trouble with the authorities.
I feel compelled to speak up, to mobilize on the behalf of humanity. "Shouldn’t we let the world know you have the cure for cancer?" I ask him. "Shouldn’t we be trying to get scientists on side, studies underway that will give the world the evidence they need?" I feel eighty eyeballs upon me, as penetrating as diamond drill-bits.
"What you don’t understand," an older woman barks at me from the couch, "is that nothing in our system of capitalism and democracy is going to allow that. The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want people to find out about something as simple as this."
Now they’re all weighing in.
"The only way someone is going to find out about this is if they are lucky and have enough gumption to follow through with it …"
"Most people want to be told what to do—they want to be in a health crisis all the time …"
"The pharmaceutical industry would find some way to discredit the Primal Diet …"
"You’re part of the problem. You’re part of the media. The media’s in cahoots with the pharmaceutical companies …"
I dodge invectives like bullets until Vonderplanitz raises his hand in a bid to speak.
"There’s no money to finance a study," he tells me. "Since 25 per-cent of our GDP is generated by the pharmaceutical industry, our economy would collapse. We’d be in a depression. That’s everything you need to know."
It’s the same argument Vonderplanitz used first in his book We Want To Live: The Primal Diet, published in 1997, and again in Recipes for Living without Disease, published in 2002. We Want To Live is the only volume I’ve read that comes with a notice absolving the author and publisher of any liability due to injury or damage caused by its contents. Harder to swallow than a pound of raw flesh is Vonder-planitz’s story in the book of how he stumbled upon the Primal Diet. A story told with such utter simplicity you might expect to find it in a kid’s library, shelved between The Three Little Pigs and Lord of the Flies. It goes back to more than thirty years ago, and it begins like this: Weak and sick, and poisoned by the "cures" of modern medicine, Vonderplanitz went to an old Indian burial site to fast himself to death. One night, he was awakened by a coyote, which motioned him to follow it. Vonderplanitz trailed the animal to a clearing. There, he met a pack of coyotes who offered him a freshly killed jackrabbit. "All eleven of them stood, staring at me. I kept getting this thought: ‘It’s what you need, take and eat it.’ They seemed to be sending me that thought.… I looked at the coyotes and said, ‘I don’t know, guys, I haven’t eaten meat in six years.’" But Vonderplanitz did eat it, reluctantly at first, and then voraciously, once he realized that the pathogens in the raw meat might kill him quicker than his fast. The next morning, to his astonishment, he woke up completely revitalized. He quickly expanded his diet, feeding on rattlesnakes and birds and raw goat’s milk. His health improving daily, Vonderplanitz eventually returned to Los Angeles to spread the word.
About the same time, a group of scientists halfway across the coun-try was about to set the diet industry on its head with another version of caveman cuisine. Writing in the stodgy American Journal of Medicine in 1988, three Atlanta academics from Emory University looked back—way back, to the way things were before the advent of agriculture—for clues to human health. S. Boyd Eaton, Mel Konner and Marjorie Shostak thought the foods of the caveman might suggest possible remedies for such modern plagues as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The journal article, "Stone Agers in the Fast Lane: Chronic Degenerative Diseases in Evolutionary Perspective," would soon become the blockbuster bestseller The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living and spawn a string of dietary tomes espousing a similar thesis. Works that included Neanderthin, The Evolution Diet, The Origin Diet and Metabolic Man.
The main idea behind the Paleo diet is the notion that although we are people of the twenty-first century, genetically we remain citizens of the Paleolithic era. Up until five hundred generations ago, humankind hunted and foraged. We lived on lean protein, wild plants and fruits. But with the agricultural revolution that began some ten thousand years ago, we took an unnatural dietary detour—one consisting of root vegetables, grains and meat from domesticated animals—for which millions of years of evolution hadn’t prepared us. The mismatch between our modern diet and our Paleolithic genes, these scientists argued, sowed the seeds for modern illnesses and chronic disease. Their prescription for health? A return to the cave and a realignment of diet with our ancient genome.
That’s where Vonderplanitz and the Paleo diet types part ways. Ac-cording to Vonderplanitz, not only did we take the wrong turn with invention of the plow and the hoe, but with the taming of fire. "Heating food destroys many health-giving properties and produces disease-causing toxins that accelerate bodily deterioration associated with ag-ing processes," he writes in The Recipe for Living without Disease. "Cooking protein-foods, including all meat, above 104 degrees F pro-duces toxins. Higher cooking temperatures create more dangerous toxins … that have proved to be carcinogenic in laboratory animals."
Cooking meat also kills nutrients as well as pathogens like salmonella and E. coli that clean up our systems and break down cancers, Vonderplantiz argues. Inconceivable? Maybe that’s why Vonderplanitz has had difficulty finding a mainstream platform for his views, save a scant few appearances on shows like Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Media juggernauts like Oprah have backed away, cancelling scheduled interviews at the last minute.
It’s doubtful, therefore, that researchers were following the former soap actor’s lead when they stumbled on a strikingly similar finding. In 1998, researchers at Yale University stunned the scientific community when they announced they had had some success in treating cancer in mice with a modified form of salmonella. Since then, hundreds of dying men and women across North America and Europe—at research centers in places like Harvard, Stanford and the University of Toronto—have jumped on the bandwagon. Cancer patients have been injected with everything from the common cold virus to measles, herpes and even the chicken flu in a bid to cure their illnesses. The results have been nothing short of astonishing, pushing many cancer patients into remission. "Duke University is using a weakened polio virus, the Mayo Clinic is using a measles virus," Vonderplanitz notes in his book. "The projected retail price of injection to the patient will be $8,000. I suggest that we get colds or flu, eat high meat regularly and pay nothing."
Pay nothing? If only the deal were that good. As the evening at the raw-meat potluck winds down, Vonderplanitz’s patients are gathering at the door, bundling into their ski jackets and boots. A light dusting of snow is falling on Victorian mansions and log cabins that look like pebbles resting beneath the sweep of the Rocky Mountains. Some guests are headed to the exclusive, members-only Caribou Club. Some are going to The Belly Up to listen to a local band. And others are headed home to bed. After all, there are only so many days of powder in a ski season. A small group hangs behind, squeezed around Vonderplanitz, hoping to glean one last kernel of wisdom, to finally press the flesh of their raw-meat guru. A few of them will be back tomorrow, meeting with him privately. For three hundred dollars, he’ll gaze deeply into their eyes, scanning the patterns, flecks and color of their irises before giving them a diagnosis and a food prescription. How to adjust their raw meat and fat diet to heal what ails them.
There’s no time to book me in. His schedule is full, our host tells me. I occupy myself while waiting to speak to the master by retrieving my piece of carpaccio from the sleek marble countertop. Maybe it’s a case of finally seeing the light. Or being too cheap, too bone-headed, too conscientious in my mission. But I won’t leave Aspen without eat-ing this piece of raw meat. My hand shakes as I make a couple of foiled attempts before finally getting it into my mouth. I’m lost in a worm hole for the second time tonight. I completely blank out. I have no recollection of chewing or tasting the most expensive piece of beef I’ll ever eat. I reasonably conclude that this is no way to have dinner. Without taste, without enjoyment.
When I’m finally able to have my own audience with Vonderplanitz, we chat briefly about the weather, his trip into Aspen tonight and his small but growing following in Canada—some three hundred raw-meat eaters, mostly in Toronto. Truthfully, I’m a little surprised, because, at least for the moment, he seems like a regular guy. Like the plumber down the street, or the man you’d hire to fix your roof—in fact, like the construction guy he played so long ago on General Hospital. Having watched him work the room tonight, I realize that with the Primal Diet he’s stumbled upon the role of a lifetime. What unfolded here was really a piece of theater, and these party- goers were the ideal audience, willing, maybe even desperate, to suspend disbelief while Vonderplanitz got to play the starring role at last: Dr. Feelgood, the raw-meat therapist. And just like the soap-opera stars, the doctors, Vonderplanitz isn’t bound by the Hippocratic oath.