Thomas Tryon’s Harmless Cocoe-Nut Water

By Andrea Crow

Mouthfeel was only the beginning for the early modern vegetarian author Thomas Tryon. Tryon’s prolific literary output of tracts and guidebooks (complete with hundreds of recipes) advocating meat-free living treats texture as one of the most important properties of food for the thoughtful consumer to consider.

Not just a matter of taste, food texture mattered, according to Tryon, throughout the entire digestive process. Sounding more or less like a twenty-first century juice cleanser, Tryon obsesses over what he calls the “furring” of the body’s “passageways.”[1] His vegetarianism, though in part ethically-motivated, also arose from his revulsion at the image of internal organs coated by “the Fat of Flesh or Fish” in sticky “oyly bodies,” such that they become hairy with strands of partly digested matter that, in turn, coalesce into “crudities” (incompletely-digested lumps of food) and other “obstructions.”[2] He devoted his life to popularizing a diet designed to promote wellness by textually transforming the internal surfaces of the organs, making them smooth, sleek, and uniform of consistency, thereby bringing the body into a state of peace and harmony from the inside out.

The fantasy that consuming certain foods will purify the finicky, smelly mass of cavities and tubes that make up the human digestive system is persistent in dietary literature from the ancient world to the present day. Plutarch urged his readers to “eat cautiously of such food as is solid and most nourishing” in favor of “those things which are thin and light,” being particularly sparing in the consumption of flesh which “very much clogs us and leaves ill relics behind it.”[3] The Yogi-brand “Roasted Dandelion Spice DeTox” tea I’m drinking as I write this promises to cleanse my liver and make my skin even and smooth. For Tryon, this dream of textureless organs was becoming more possible than ever thanks to an influx of the early modern equivalent of superfoods: the fruits, vegetables, and roots of the Caribbean.

Tryon’s eager account of these new imports, “A Brief Treatise of the Principal Fruits and Herbs that Grow in Barbadoes, Jamaica, and other Plantations in the West-Indies”—the first portion of his three-volume collection Friendly Advice to the Gentlemen-Planters of the East and West Indies (1684)—is an interesting case study in the history of thought on food texture because of how significant this factor was to the arguments Tryon made for consuming this new fare. The most beneficial textural properties of Caribbean produce, he argued, could be found at the microscopic level. The “delicate cooling Breezes and refreshing Gales of Wind,” combined with the “Sun’s more near and direct Beams,” infused the vegetation with an invisible motion that  “digest[ed] their Rawness.”[4] While the bulk of Tryon’s writing encouraged his readers to subsist primarily on a relatively flavorless diet of plain gruel and bread, he was ecstatic about tropical fruits and vegetables because of his belief that climate conditions had pre-digested them into an internal state of refined homogeneity.

The pineapple’s visible “delicacy” and “curious Shape” is, according to Tryon’s treatise, complemented by its ability, when consumed, to “moderate, cool, comfort and refresh the Spirits, cleanse the Passages, remove Obstructions that fur the Pipes, and also purge away and help to digest all slimy and sharp Juices that offend Nature.”[5] Plaintains’ inner “brisk spiritous parts”  will “gently open obstructions”;[6] the “Cocoe-Nut’s” “think or milky Substance” contains “pure fine brisk Spirits” that “breeds good Blood”;[7] underneath the seemingly forbidding appearance of “pinpillow-pears” (apparently a type of prickly pear) with their “Martial Weapons or Prickles” run “Juices quick and penetrating” that “cut Phlegm … and help Concoction.”[8] In short, the foods of the West Indies promise dramatic advances in the study of the fluid mechanics of the body that so interests Tryon.

The motivations shaping Tryon’s particular vision of an idealized digestive system—clean, free of conflict, and so smooth that nothing offensive can stick to it—though theoretically a simple matter of health, becomes more sociopolitically complex when considered in the context of the subsequent two sections that follow the “Brief Treatise” in the Friendly Advice to the Gentleman-Planters volume. The subsequent texts, “The Complaints of the Negro-Slaves against the Hard Usages and Barbarous Cruelties Inflicted Upon Them” and “A Discourse in Way of Dialogue, between an Ethiopean or Negro-Slave, and a Christian that was his Master in America,” delineate the cruel, dehumanizing conditions and racist atrocities that bring the very health foods Tryon promotes to English tables.[9] Like Whole Foods’s infamous 2014 campaign featuring posters of a smiling child that read “Grow Up Strong and Harmless,” or the bizarrely-titled beverage “Harmless Harvest Coconut Water,” Tryon’s desire for a textureless and therefore harmonious and virtuous inner state reads like a case of protesting too much: displacing anxiety over one’s involvement in violent and destructive global food infrastructures by becoming a metaphorical embodiment of harmlessness through achieving conflict-free digestion.

[1] Thomas Tryon, Monthly Observations for the Preserving of Health with a Long and Comfortable Life, in this our Pilgrimage on Earth, but more particularly for the spring and summer seasons (London, 1688), 14.

[2] Ibid, 14-15.

[3] Plutarch, Plutarch’s Morals, Vol. 1, ed. William W. Goodwin (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1871), 268.

[4] Tryon, A Brief Treatise of the Principal Fruits and Herbs that Grow in Barbadoes, Jamaica, and other Plantations in the West-Indies (1684), 2-3.

[5] Ibid, 4-7.

[6] Ibid, 9.

[7] Ibid, 13.

[8] Ibid, 37.

[9] Kim F. Hall offers a trenchant analysis of these treatises in the context of the xenophobia expressed in Tryon’s writings in‘Extravagant Viciousness’: Slavery and Gluttony in the Works of Thomas Tryon,” in Writing Race across the Atlantic World: Medieval to Modern, eds. Phillip Beidler and Gary Taylor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 93-111.

Andrea Crow is an assistant professor in the English department at Boston College where she specializes in early modern poetry and drama. She is currently completing a monograph exploring the relationship between poetics and food scarcity in seventeenth-century Anglophone literature. Her work has appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Christianity and Literature, and Early Modern Women.


2 Replies to “Thomas Tryon’s Harmless Cocoe-Nut Water”

  1. Andrea Crow. When we were in Israel at the kibbutz we had lots of foods listed in the Mediterranean diet. Wish we had continued it when we came home.
    Your article was very interesting. Thanks for posting it.
    💞😊 Doris L

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