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.

“Bonny-Clabber Physicians”: Eating Clean in the Seventeenth Century

Michael Walkden

NPG D31284; Thomas Tryon by Robert White, after Unknown artist, line engraving, 1703. Credit: WikiCommons.
NPG D31284; Thomas Tryon by Robert White, after Unknown artist, line engraving, 1703. Credit: WikiCommons.

The concept of ‘clean eating’ is nothing new, but ideas about what constitutes ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ food have varied within and across cultures. In the later seventeenth century, the popular health writer Thomas Tryon promoted a “radically clean” vegetarian diet as a route to longevity and clarity of mind. However, Tryon’s meat-free menu was rather different from the quinoa bowls and kale smoothies of modern-day clean-eaters. His 1694 Pocket-companion contains the following recipe (easy to follow, but emphatically not to be tried at home):

Boniclabber is made by letting your Milk stand till it sowers, which will be in Twenty-fours hours, if the weather be very hot. [1]

Tryon’s ‘bonny clabber’ – an Irish country dish that was later enjoyed by immigrants to the USA – would have great difficulty in meeting twenty-first century Western standards of food hygiene. Writing well before the advent of pasteurization, Tryon would likely have used raw milk straight from the cow, which would have been rich in bacteria that could be both beneficial and harmful to the human body. If it was left at just the right temperature and for the appropriate length of time, the finished product would be a thick, fermented milk, similar to yoghurt or kefir.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of Tryon’s contemporaries shared his enthusiasm. Gideon Harvey wrote that “Bonny-Clabber Physicians” routinely endangered their patients by their over-use of milk products, which he viewed as highly corruptible and prone to curdling in the belly. [2] Harvey had the weight of medical tradition on his side. Humoural physicians since Hippocrates frequently expressed mistrust or even fear over the coagulability of milk, with Galen writing that it “turns to wind in the stomachs of most people, and there are very few who avoid this.” [3]

Clabbered milk. Credit: WikiCommons.
Clabbered milk. Credit: WikiCommons.

Tryon attempted to forestall this sort of criticism in his own writing. Since he believed that digestion operated by a process of fermentation, it logically followed that fermented foods should be easier on the stomach, having already undergone the initial stages of this process. While he was prepared to admit that it “may not be so agreeable to the Pallat at first”, Tryon assured his readers that “a little Custom will make it familiar and pleasant.” [4]

Attitudes towards the healthiness of clabber were also closely tied up with racial stereotypes about the Irish, whose perceived gluttony and barbarism were ridiculed by many English Protestants. In 1652 the parliamentarian Samuel Sheppard wrote of an anonymous royalist that “his Intellect is as foule, as an Irish Firkin of Bonny Clabber”, suggesting that many viewed it as a disgusting or dangerous substance. [5] By contrast, in a 1635 letter from Dublin, the English royalist and Lord Deputy of Ireland Thomas Wentworth described clabber as “the bravest freshest Drink you ever tasted.” [6]

The example of bonny clabber raises some interesting questions about the relationship between ideology and diet. As Carla Cevasco has flagged up elsewhere on this blog, the categories that shape affective responses to food can be highly variable, ranging from the genetic makeup of a population to its social norms. Disgust that feels instinctive or biologically hard-wired might just as easily be the product of a specific cultural moment. As the debate over clean eating continues to rage, we need to pay closer attention to the ideological fault-lines upon which we construct our ideas about food and hygiene.

[1] Thomas Tryon, A pocket-companion, containing things necessary to be known by all that values their health and happiness (London: Printed for George Conyers, 1693), 6.

[2] Gideon Harvey, The art of curing diseases by expectation (London: Printed for James Partridge, 1689), 38.

[3] Galen, Galen on Food and Diet, ed. Mark Grant (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 165. See also Ken Albala, “Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous,” in Milk: Beyond the Dairy: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1999, (Devon, UK: Prospect Books, 2000), 19-30.

[4] Tryon, Pocket-companion, 7.

[5] Samuel Sheppard, The vveepers: or, the bed of snakes broken (London: Printed for Thomas Bucknell, 1652), 6.

[6] Thomas Wentworth, The Earl of Strafforde’s Letters and Dispatches, Volume 1, ed. William Knowler (London: Printed for the editor, by William Bowyer, 1739), 441.

Michael Walkden is currently completing his doctoral thesis in History at the University of York, UK. His research explores understandings of the relationship between emotions and digestion in early modern English medicine. He is particularly interested in the intersection of diet, health and spirituality in the seventeenth century.