Coconuts are good for you, so us neurotic, potentially orthorexic eaters are told. If pop nutritionism is your guide, maybe you relish that whole butter-is-back thing in which saturated fat is at last vindicated of its heart-stopping reputation. Now you proudly skip the sad, floury breadbasket, go straight for the cheese plate, chug a liter of milk, why not. In this new frontier of twenty-first-century foodstuffs, the wet interior of a coconut—a heaping dose of that delicious saturated fat alongside a stock of iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus—is your veritable breakfast of champions. Or, if you shun this sort of nutritional analysis and instead buy the logic of a certain sun-worshipping cocovore named August Engelhardt, that coconut might just be your breakfast, lunch, and dinner, to the exclusion of anything else at all.
Ludicrous as that sounds, some of us are already heading in that direction. Coconut flesh, in whatever form, appears in allegedly healthful recipes for everything from chocolate cake to carrot soup. The drupe of the Cocos nucifera tree, native to the Indo-Pacific, is, in contemporary Western life, electrolyte replenishment after training as newly hip coconut water. It is coconut milk in the dal you, healthy and worldly person, make for your office potluck. Hell, maybe you put some magical coconut oil in your hair, on your skin à la Gwyneth Paltrow, your eyes, ears, nostrils even. The fruit is entrenched in seemingly every diet plan, from Mediterranean and paleo to Atkins, pescatarian, egg free, lactose free, gluten free, vegan—even, confusingly, nut free—to say nothing of its countless cosmetic applications. But unlike its superfood brethren, quinoa and acai, coconuts have been firmly within reach of health-conscious Western folk (those who decide staples of other regions are suddenly super) for at least a century, thanks to some combination of colonialism and the naturally seaworthy lifespan of the hard-shelled drupe.
If anything, August Engelhardt was a trailblazer: he laid out a version of his cocovorist diet plan as early as 1898 with the publication of Eine Sorgenfreie Zukunft, co-authored by August Bethmann. A few years later, the young Bavarian set off for German New Guinea—present-day Papua New Guinea—and put his convictions to the test on an island he dubbed the “Palm Temple.” It may not shock you to discover, however, that eating only coconuts turns out to be an astonishingly bad idea, at least if survival is on the old life to-do list; Engelhardt died rheumatic, mentally ill, and ulcer-ridden at the age of 44, isolated and broken in his beloved coconut paradise. Perhaps he took the Sanskrit name for the plant—kalpa vrishka, or “tree which gives all that is necessary for living”—a touch too literally.
Born in Nuremburg in 1875, Engelhardt was raised on the meat and potatoes of his factory-owner father and went on to study chemistry and physics at the University of Erlangen. Disaffected—as proto-hippie student types often are—by the growing industrialism overtaking his fledgling nation, Engelhardt took to Lebensreform, the back-to-nature philosophy popular at the time in Germany and Switzerland, which emphasized vegetarianism, nudism, sexual liberation, and teetotalism. Working as a pharmacy assistant, he came across scores of magazines on the movement—some socialist in nature, some notably völkisch, or populist, some apolitical, and at least one that could well have been published alongside such contemporary manifestos as Wheat Belly or Food Rules; that is, Obst und Brod: Eine wissenschaftliche Diätetik des Menschen, by Gustav Schlickeysen.
For his part, Schlickeysen, a Berlin native transplanted to Jersey City, combined the Transcendentalist self-sufficiency and rejection of materialism disseminated by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau with Darwinist influence burgeoning at the time, ideas that would become central to Lebensreform. Like his literary contemporary, Walt Whitman, Schlickeysen posited that self-care, particularly in diet, is the primary solution to the evils brought on by industrialism. Insisting on a purity similar to Whitman’s absurdly carnivorous recommendations, Schlickeysen likewise made a moral argument, this time with a Darwinist flare: our primate brethren, he held, are morally sound where humanity is not, and, in an assertion that echoes dozens of contemporary dietary guides, he claimed our sinful omnivorous diets are to blame. Citing as evidence the comparative physiology of humans and apes, Schlickeysen put forth a fruitarian diet—raw fruit, grains, and nuts only—as the superlative recipe for human survival.
“In a hundred cases of disease,” Schlickeysen writes, “over ninety will be found to originate in the consumption of improper foods.” While this sounds like an offhand comment your brother-in-law might make at Christmas dinner, it was an extreme idea at the time, one the translator of the English edition of Obst und Brod noted “may seem too radical for adoption in the present state of society.” Even the president of the contemporaneous Vegetarian Society in the United Kingdom, Francis Newman, wrote a scathing review upon the English publication of Obst und Brod. Such extreme culinary parameters were apparently too eccentric for Newman, a man described by his peers as “a militant vegetarian, intransigent vivisectionist, [and] enthusiastic anti-vaccinationist.”
It was Schlickeysen’s advocacy of raw food that stepped over the proverbial line: “The present custom of cooking our food seems necessary only because it is customary,” he writes. Still, Schlickeysen’s diet—specifically his spurning of all things cooked—wrapped around the globe, infusing society the world over with a disdain for the industrial diet ubiquitous in nineteenth-century America and Europe. One such convert was Maximillian Bircher-Benner, whose breakfast interpretation of the fruit, nut, and grain diet invaded the cupboards of every German speaker from its conception in 1900. Müsli, it turns out, was revolutionary.
But Engelhardt, inspired as he was by the purported radicalism of Schlickeysen and Lebensreform at large, could not be satisfied by a mere healthy breakfast, however avant-garde. According to a profile in the New York Times in 1905, he “began to develop that unhappy combination of gifts—oratory powers with radical ideas.” Such ideas made their way into Eine Sorgenfreie Zukunft and, via impressive circulation, garnered some disciples, Lebensreformers moved by Engelhardt’s assurance. Specifically, he declared that “marriage should be stamped out as degrading to both sexes; that men should return to the fields; that fashion should be disregarded and men live in an unblushing state of nudity; that the fleshpots should be thrown aside for the natural fruits of the earth…” In something of a bastardization of Schlickeysen’s Darwinist health theories, Engelhardt deduced that the sun was the source of all life and as such, should be accessed directly, with bare skin. Still, in Wilhelminian Germany, nudism was not yet well appreciated, (Freikörperkultur was, in fact, a Lebensreformer response to this sort of conservatism) so Engelhardt shifted his vision to the tropics. In any case, the Times article notes, he held that, alongside a fruitarian diet, “the healing and curative powers of the sun would in time render a man so immune that sickness could be overcome: he even went so far as to declare that those who survived the first ordeal would conquer death…” And to think, all you do for your body is that measly bowl of müsli each morning.
After gathering some disciples for his Sonnenorden, or Order of the Sun, in Germany, Engelhardt boarded a mail ship—named, notably, “Empire,” referring perhaps to the imperialism that made this whole venture possible—to scope out a spot for his coconut utopia in 1902. With the 41,000 Marks he tapped from his sun-worshipping cultists, he purchased Kabakon, a small, idyllic atoll in the Bismarck Archipelago, from the colonial German government at Herbertshohe, never mind the 40 or so Melanesians already resident. There, he built a small hut for his hundreds of books and set up shop as a coconut oil and copra supplier, fulfilling the dream of many a twenty-first-century 9-to-5er.
As Engelhardt awaited the arrival of his Order, his philosophy and fruitarian diet evolved to adapt to its apparent failures. Despite all that stuff about disease and immortality, he developed painful ulcers on his legs in a matter of months, all the while consuming only tropical fruit. Naturally, decided Engelhardt, the problem was the physical and philosophical stature of the specific varieties of fruit; bananas, abundant on the island, are too phallic, he posited, thus too immoral to be healthful. Coconuts, on the other hand, grow closest to the sun—his Order’s god, after all—and are therefore holiest, an immaculate foodstuff. Further still, they look like human heads, awash with hair and some semblance of facial features. “The coconut,” said Engelhardt, “is the Philosopher’s Stone.”
Between 1903 and 1913, at least 15 young Germans joined him in his cocovorist Palm Temple, where, after some months or years of wandering around naked, almost every disciple perished in purist stupidity. Take, for instance, Bavarian student Heinrich Eukens and Max Lützow, once the director of the renowned Lützow Orchestra of Berlin, who appeared early on only to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of paradise some months later. According to the New York Times article, “the two new arrivals were delighted with the appearance of Engelhardt. Weeks of life under the sun, in the salt sea, and living upon fruit had brought him to a state of wonderful physical perfection. His skin was like copper…his yellow hair shone like gold.” Just weeks after jumping into Engelhardt’s lifestyle, however, Eukens “contracted a cold, developed fever, and died quite suddenly.” Lützow, for his part, could not shed his musical love, which Engelhardt considered a trapping of their reviled Western Civilization—Engelhardt apparently hated anything and everything by Georges Bizet in particular. Anyway, one ideological quarrel later and Lützow needed a break from his nagging hut-mate. He took refuge on a Wesleyan mission boat in the lagoon, but the ship drifted out to the open ocean and he was stranded for days with the missionaries. Refusing to break his fruitarian diet for something as paltry as survival, Lützow contracted a fever on board and was buried next to Eukens all of one week later.
Through the entire history of the Sonnenorden, nearly every sun-worshipper was killed by either sunstroke, drowning, malaria (followers were assured coconuts are more powerful than quinine), and—in fabulous irony—falling coconuts. Those who survived warned the local governor to ban newcomers, and by World War I, Engelhardt was alone. Gravely ill on and off for years, he was briefly captured by the Australians and otherwise remained something of a freak show on the island; Pacific soldiers and travelers frequented Kabakon just to have their photo taken with the 30-kilo cocovore. In May of 1919, he was found dead on the beach of the Palm Temple, evidently mortal like the rest of us.
A century or so later, Swiss novelist Christian Kracht happened upon a faded photo of the Christlike proto-hippie at a yard sale in Bavaria and fictionalized his life in the 2012 novel Imperium. The title, Kracht explains in an NPR article, denotes two parallel definitions of the word that interweave uncomfortable notions of purity. Of course, Engelhardt’s absurd absolutism is one definition: imperium as “absolute power,” in which only coconuts can be considered human food because…well, just because. But besides that, there is the potentially unconscious outline—the German imperialism that paved way for Engelhardt’s existence, not to mention the stuffy sausage-and-sauerkraut society that birthed Lebensreform to begin with. Engelhardt, says Kracht, “was ultimately a white colonizer,” one who defined himself in opposition to a unifying and frighteningly patriotic nation by way of that same nation. Had his utopian dream been a touch more accepted, Kracht suggests, Engelhardt might have fashioned his story into something darker. According to the NPR piece, Kracht highlights “an uneasy resonance between the purity-and-utopia-obsessed cocovore and another German, whose insanity, says a sardonic Kracht, ‘was not in a nutshell but on a larger level.’” Kracht goes on: “if parallels arise with a later German romantic and vegetarian who perhaps ought to have remained at his easel, then this is entirely intentional.”
Indeed, the cocovorist strain that persists in twenty-first-century society today—the normality of that can of coconut water or milk, the shampoo, the macaroons and cookies and soups and müsli—much of that can be traced back to Lebensreform, the same that borne Engelhardt. As a social movement, Lebensreform seems positive enough; much of its back-to-nature, anti-industrial rhetoric comes across as natural and normal today, an effect of the hippie movement of the 1960s that bore first into countercultural circles and eventually reached mainstream nutritional guidance. At the time, however, hundreds of Lebensreform devotee groups stretched across Germany and Switzerland. Sure, some emphasized things like amateur singing and dancing—you know, hippie stuff—but others were more sinister. Some groups carried an adoration of the so-called “old ways”—at first, just pagan Teutonic spiritualism—that evolved to become anti-Semitic, Blood-and-Soil nationalism. Richard Ungewitter, for instance, a völkisch Lebensreformer, published Nudity and Culture in 1907, stating that nudism, ecological adoration, and the like would be “the means by which the German race would regenerate itself and ultimately prevail over its neighbours and the diabolical Jews, who were intent on injecting putrefying agents into the nation’s blood and soil.” The völkisch movement, growing from Lebensreform, combined the back-to-nature approach so revered by Engelhardt with the notion of a singular national body and its Blood and Soil. For many, the whole thing became about little more than racial purity. Reserving the “old ways” for those with German blood alone, Blood and Soil and the völkisch movement took over Lebensreform, leaving its less right-wing adherents with fewer and fewer ideological havens.
Many German Lebensreformers, it turns out, escaped just like Engelhardt, though with not quite as extreme conviction to the aforementioned purity. In the sunny climes of Southern California, literal boatloads of Germans practiced alternative lifestyles that would lay the blueprint for the hippie movement generations later. Many opened some of the first health food stores in the country, peddling foods like müsli and homegrown granola alongside, you guessed it, coconuts. Thanks to twentieth-century California’s outsize influence on global food and health trends, the descendant ideologies of Lebensreform—the seed that paved the way for an unfathomable dedication to purity—persist even today. Now, every time you crack open the hard-shelled, hairy, Philosopher’s Stone of a fruit, you can ponder those old-school German hippies and their purity. And while you’re at it, maybe eat more than just coconuts.