On the second night of the Woodstock fruit festival in upstate New York, long after dinner had been cleared, I stood in the dining hall and waited with other festivalgoers for what was rumoured to be a “fuck ton” of durian, a large, spiky tropical fruit famous for smelling like dung. Thick bass pummelled the air from the rave-style DJ in the corner. It was mid-August, and with the nearness and number of other peoples’ bodies I was overly warm, almost sweating. Beneath the buzz of long fluorescent bulbs, small children limboed under a piece of string to the sloppy clapping of adults, and somewhere in the hall a drum circle stuttered to an entirely different rhythm. It was too bright, too noisy, and everywhere I went there was the slight whiff of fruit-rot, a sweet, sticky smell whose origin was decay.
It was the first of the festival’s many “Sweet Durian Nites”, a dance party that climaxed with the consumption of hundreds and hundreds of ripe durian fruits. The dining hall was packed with exemplars of health and youth and whiteness. There were lean kids in T-shirts and shorts, hippie chicks with rippling hair, sporty-looking guys wearing toe shoes – snug, rubberised foot-gloves that swaddle the foot in hi-tech materials in order to mimic the conditions of running barefoot. Everyone looked comfortable. Everyone had good posture. Everyone was attractive, or more precisely, all the attendees looked so well that I felt like I should be attracted to them. Even the older attendees seemed young: I had the experience many times of walking towards a girl with long hair and skinny legs only to discover up close that she was well over 60.
A narrow-headed man with arms like an action figure introduced himself as Jay and asked if this was my first time trying durian. I told him I’d only had it cooked in puddings or cakes, and he assured me that raw, fresh durian was a completely different thing. He said I’ll go nuts for it, especially if I stuck to a fruitarian diet. “The cleaner you get,” he said, “the more your body craves that sulphur flavour. And you’ll be able to taste more in it – coffee, ice cream, whiskey, lemon. If there’s something you miss eating, durian starts to taste just like it.”
I was first introduced to fruitarianism by a close friend who crashed with me for a weekend in 2012. I opened the door and watched her roll a carry-on suitcase into the entryway, set it down, unzip it, and remove two 40oz plastic containers of red globe grapes, which she rinsed off and consumed in their entirety while standing in the middle of my kitchen. When she was done, she put the spindly grape-skeletons back in their plastic clamshells, and the clamshells back in her suitcase. She had been on a fruit-based diet for just a couple of months, but was already reporting astounding changes: an end to the stomach pains that had troubled her for years; bursting, glowy levels of energy; sharpened concentration; happiness. “I love it,” she told me. “It’s like the whole world is made of delicious, dripping sugar.” Her diet didn’t sound safe, but my friend looked well. She buzzed with intense wellbeing and her skin looked enviably great, although she took frequent naps.
Most faithfully described as a “plant-based raw vegan diet” (the term fruitarian is preferred among practitioners, although only a fraction are on an all-fruit diet), fruitarianism largely adheres to a nutritional regimen known as 80-10-10. This is a high-carb, low-fat diet in which at least 80% of one’s calorie consumption is expected to come from the simple carbohydrates found in fresh fruits and vegetables, with at most 10% each coming from protein and fat. As a point of comparison, the Atkins diet begins with a recommended ratio of 10% carbs, 29% protein, and 65% fat. Because fruits and vegetables naturally contain small amounts of fat and protein, Dr Doug Graham, an unlicensed chiropractor and the man behind 80-10-10, claims that you can thrive on a diet composed entirely of fresh raw fruits, raw leafy greens, and only occasional supplements of nuts or seeds. For a fruitarian, breakfast might be 1lb of kiwi blended with 1lb of orange juice, with 1lb 12oz of peeled bananas wrapped in romaine leaves for lunch, and a three-course dinner consisting of 1lb blended tangerines and pineapple; 1lb of tangerines, celery, and red bell peppers blended into a soup, and a side salad.
This diet is not easy to maintain, but raw fruit experts promise a vast array of benefits. In testimonials, fruitarians claim that going raw has done everything from curing cancer to eliminating body odour and changing the colour of one’s eyes from brown to blue. Unlike other diets, 80-10-10 promises to transform your experience of your body, revealing levels of thriving that you didn’t know existed. In this way, “going raw” breaks with the traditional function of diet as rudimentary medicine (seen even in early Hippocratic medical texts) and becomes a lifestyle. A diet tells you what you should eat; a lifestyle tells you how you should feel about it.
The history of recreational dieting is fairly brief. Until the rise of natural-food communities in the 1970s, it could be argued that for most secular people, diet and lifestyle were imagined as distinct, compartmentalised aspects of daily life. Diets were faddish, seasonal, geared towards achieving a specific goal and then abandoned once they were no longer needed. They were not supposed to rearrange social ties or create new communities, only help you to succeed within your existing community by becoming a slimmer and more attractive version of yourself. From the 1880s onwards, after the discovery of food as a composite of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, most diets emphasised eating the right amount of existing mainstream foods in the right proportion to satisfy nutritional needs. That changed with the leftist utopian food communities of the 1960s and 70s – a precursor to today’s fruitarians – and the age of negative nutrition, which sought to reduce or eliminate foods that had previously been part of a nutritious standard American diet. Negative nutrition spurned sodium, cholesterol, sugar, and fat – and the suspicions it raised about the standard American diet lent momentum to the growing natural foods movement.
In the natural foods movement of the 1960s and 70s, activists and hippies combined diet, politics, and community, to provide a vision of how one could live a life that matched one’s diet. Foods were eliminated not only for health reasons but in order to cultivate a desirable personality – meat-eating, for example, was denounced as an impediment to spiritual growth and a cause of aggressive behaviour. Groups such as The Diggers in San Francisco gave food away for free and popularised wholewheat bread baked in emptied coffee cans as part of a broader experiment in creating a miniature society free from capitalism, while the macrobiotic Zen diet proposed eating your way to enlightenment through 10 different stages, each more restrictive than the last, until the eater reached an apex where she sustained herself on brown rice alone. The fruitarian lifestyle shares the narrative structure of the macrobiotic diet, its emphasis on eliminating toxicity within the body, as well as its ethos of restrictive decadence. Where it differs from macrobiotics is in its fixation on a utopian past. Like those on the nutritionally inverse “paleo” diet, fruitarians eat in hope of returning to a past that predates the primal wound of agrarian society, but whereas paleo dieters hark back to the era when humans were hunter‑gatherers, fruitarians look back to an even earlier time, when we were simply gatherers – equal, undifferentiated, and deeply in harmony with nature.