by Jennifer Scerra
While researching this week’s From the Homestead Kitchen post on the Diet and Cook Book by Dr. Harry Finkel, I learned three things:
1. Dr. Harry Finkel was (probably) not a doctor.
2. Dr. Finkel’s birth name was Harry Finkelstein.
3. Even 100 years ago, eating healthy was complicated.
Now, you may not be overly shocked by point #3 (or maybe also point #1 or #2), but I found the story of Dr. Finkel to be a surprising and interesting one. So, if you will indulge me, I am going to dig in a little to the life and circumstances that led Dr. Finkel to his job as a “Drugless Doctor” and to produce a series of popular health food guides. And don’t worry, there is a recipe review at the end, so you too can learn from Dr. Finkel and savor what healthy living tasted like in the 1920s.
1. Harry Finkel was (probably) not a doctor.
When Dr. Harry Finkel, N.D., D.C. published the second edition of his Diet and Cook Book in 1925, he was around 47 years old. A New York State census from that same year says that he was living with his cook book co-author, Lucy Stern, and working as a “doctor of naturopathy.”
25 years earlier, at the time of the 1900 census, his occupation was described as a “tailor.” In 1910, at 31 years old, his occupation was listed as “none.” So, what happened in between that time and the publishing of the book that allowed him to establish himself as an expert on food and health?
Harry’s 1918 draft card offers a few tantalizing clues about his career path and also about the culture of health and wellness in the United States at the time. He reported to the draft board that he ran his “own business” and under PRESENT OCCUPATION he listed three jobs: the first is unreadable, but it is followed by “masseuse,” and “physical culturalist.”
The job of Physical Culturalist is not something that most people are familiar with today, but in the late 1800s it was a growing occupation. Founded in Germany, and popular throughout Europe, the Physical Culture Movement was a form of physical therapy, meant to treat people for ailments caused by the modern industrial lifestyle, through exercise and healthy living.
Immigrants to the United states brought the system to their new communities, and made popular things we still use today, like gyms, gymnastics, weightlifting, and massages. Harry Finkel wrote that he worked for himself, but some physical culturalists were employed at schools or even hospitals. In 1914, a hospital for joint diseases in the city of New York described how they needed “20 medical assistants, 26 masseurs and masseuses, 9 physical culture teachers and 8 nurses…” in order to treat their 500 patients a day.
Similarly, the practice of naturopathy also developed in the United States from traditions brought in by German immigrants. The term naturopathic medicine is used to describe a number of alternative medical practices that all rely on nature to heal the body. Benedict Lust, a New Yorker and German born American, is often called the father of US naturopathy. He was particularly important in making the term naturopath popular and in setting up some of naturopathy’s first professional societies. He worked alongside physical culturalists, but was interested not just in exercise, but also more broadly in things like water therapy, chiropractic treatments, and vegetarianism.
Lust lived most of his adult life in the New York area and established the first schools for naturopaths there, making New York City the center of the movement in the United States. This perhaps explains why fellow New Yorker, Dr. Harry Finkel, made the jump from physical culturalist to naturopath, but not how he got there. If Dr. Finkel went to one of these naturopathy schools, or studied under Benedict Lust or another teacher, I have not been able to find that information. It may be that the documentation is lost. But since Dr. Finkel says nothing about his education in his book, it may also be that he was instead self-taught. Naturopaths are inconsistently educated and licensed even today, and the title was still less credentialed in the early 1900s. This seems all the more likely since a later 1940 census notes Dr. Finkel’s highest level of education as 8th grade.
2. Finkel’s birth name was Harry Finkelstein.
As was previously demonstrated, we are pretty lucky to be able to trace much of Dr. Finkel’s life and occupation through census forms and other public documentation. In early censuses we can see his large family, his Russian immigrant parents, and his mother, Lena, who only spoke Yiddish. Later, we see that sometime between 1925 and 1930 he married his cook book co-author Alice Stern and the pair moved from New York to Los Angeles. We can also see that at some point between 1910 and 1925, along with changing his career, he also changed his name from Harry Finkelstein.
What makes us even think that Harry Finkel and Harry Finkelstein were the same person, you ask? It is good to insist on evidence, and in this case it comes in the form of yet another draft card—this one for WWII when Harry was 63 years old. The registration card asked for the name and address of a person who would always know Harry Finkel’s address and he listed a sister, Hattie Finkelstein, who still lived in their hometown of New York.
It is impossible to say exactly why Harry changed his name. He may have thought that a pithy (and anglicized) last name was better for marketing his books and business. Or possibly it was to distinguish himself from another Dr. Harry Finkelstein, a prominent New York M.D.
Whatever the reason, his hustle to build a name for himself was productive and his new moniker started to show up in radio program listings, on the cover of his books, and in the newspaper as a featured speaker at a food fair in Los Angeles.
After moving to California, he also used his clout as a doctor and upstanding member of society to organize and fight for a group of fellow depositors who had been swindled out of millions in savings by a bank executive. But that’s a story for another blog post.
3. Even 100 years ago, eating healthy was complicated.
To all who feast on fish or steak
Who smoke or drink—of wine partake
Pray ye listen—Nature’s warning take
Or your thread of life she soon will break
So, you might be wondering: What about the food? Dr. Finkel is pretty interesting but we’ve been waiting all this time for the instructions on healthy eating that were promised to us.
Food is complicated, right? What each of us eats is determined by millennia of natural selection, centuries of culture, and years of personal preference. There are literally limitless combinations of the types and quantities of ingredients that could make up our diet. So how is anyone supposed to know what to eat?
Dr. Finkel’s Diet and Cook Book is both exactly what you would imagine and full of surprising tidbits (for example, “pickled foods are dangerous to the human system”). Dr. Finkel, like Benedict Lust and some of the prominent naturopaths and physical culturalists of the age, was a proponent of vegetarianism. But at the same time, he says that a doctor whose only dietary advise to his patients is to avoid meat, is like a town fiddler who can only play one tune. Health and long life depend upon food, he says, so it’s worth at least these 285 pages of the reader’s time to study it extensively.
Dr. Finkel breaks this down for the reader in several ways. The beginning of the book is devoted to discussing nutrition, including the dietary needs of different subgroups of people (since I have spent the day researching and writing, I paid particular attention to the chapter on diet for “Brain Workers”). Then he moves into recipes. Each recipe he puts into a class, either I, II, or III, depending, he says, on the percentage of protein each contains. So, for example, a brain worker should stick to a diet of class I and class II foods only. Class III foods would encourage sickness.
Next, he mixes those 426 recipes into menus, also organized by class. So, for a class II luncheon one might eat:
“Beet soup, Mashed potatoes, Baked apple, Bran bread, Cold lemonade”
“Poached egg on toast, Bran muffin, Raisin pie, Milk and water”
“Spaghetti, Spinach, Bran bread, Postum”
Reading through, you might notice that a whole lot of the menus include a serving a bran bread or bran muffins. Dr. Finkel thought whole grains were very important. So that is what I decided to make.
Bran Bread – Class II
3 cups bran
3 cups whole wheat flour
½ cup brown sugar or molasses
1 teaspoon soda (baking soda)
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups buttermilk
Add the flour to the bran, then add sugar, soda and salt. Add buttermilk gradually and stir until well mixed. Bake in hot oven for about 30 minutes.
The recipe is fairly similar to an Irish Brown Soda Bread, so when I had questions about what temperature to bake at and what the dough should look like, I turned to those for my answer. My batter was very dry, so I ended up adding an extra tablespoon of buttermilk to fully incorporate the flour. Once in the pan, I baked at 375 degrees for 45 minutes, until a fork came out clean.
I thought this was best served still warm, even though Dr. Finkel says “hot bread or biscuits are extremely dangerous to the body.” It’s also good with butter, which he does approve of! And of course, I solicited opinions from the rest of my family.
Bran Bread Reviews
Kid 1: “Mmm. I like it. Can I have another?”
Kid 2: “It’s good. It’s sweet.”
Adult 1: “Mmm……….mmm. That’s really good. It has a lot of depth. I don’t know…very filling and delicious.
Adult 2: “I’ve eaten this as a cracker. Or it’s like that cereal, right? The bran Os?”
Adult 3: “It’s tasty…but dense!”
Adult 4: “It reminds me of my youth. Like a big bran muffin.”
So, there you have it—a pretty tasty bran bread and a pretty interesting character. Was this the blog post you thought you were getting? Probably not. But in history you so rarely find what you expect…