How diet guru Nathan Pritikin’s “doomed” effort to slim down the residents of Natchitoches, Louisiana wrecked his life—and created the mythos of the Natchitoches Meat Pie
by Chris Jay
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Content warning: This story contains mentions of suicide and a brief description of the act.
By the time Nathan Pritikin arrived in Natchitoches, Louisiana in January of 1980, the 64-year-old Californian nutritionist must have at least suspected that he’d made a terrible mistake. He was a highly intelligent man, an inventor who’d patented devices used by companies like Honeywell and General Electric in the 1950s before embarking on a second career as a nutritionist in the 1970s. By 1980 Pritikin was one of the most recognizable diet experts in the U.S. He had risen to fame—and been dubbed “controversial”—by claiming that his diet and exercise program, the Pritikin Diet, could reverse the effects of heart disease.
Pritikin came to Louisiana at the invitation of Governor Edwin Edwards, who’d heard about the Pritikin Diet from a friend and invited the diet’s creator to design and supervise a state-funded experiment called Project Life. The small town of Natchitoches—population 16,000—had been selected as the site of Project Life because of its high rate of heart disease. Residents of nearby Ruston, Louisiana were named as the “control group” for Project Life. The stated goal of the initiative was to reduce the occurrence of heart disease among Louisianians.
Edwards earmarked $40,000 of state money for Project Life and appointed one of his friends, a sociologist and Baptist minister named C.B. “Lum” Ellis, as director. Ellis had a penchant for saying outrageous things to the media, a skill that he deployed frequently during his time at Project Life.
“We’re going to be the healthiest town in the nation,” Ellis said of Natchitoches in an interview with Morgan City’s Daily Review shortly after the launch of Project Life.
Why he would have accepted Edwards’s invitation to oversee a citywide weight loss program in one of the unhealthiest towns in Louisiana is a question that only Pritikin could have answered. By the time he stepped foot in Natchitoches, Pritikin was operating two posh residential weight loss facilities, called Longevity Centers, and his diet program was one of the hottest fad diets in the U.S. He was in talks with Interstate Bakeries Corporation (producers of the Hostess, Wonder Bread, and Nature’s Pride brands) to market a line of low-fat foods under the Pritikin name. His first diet book, The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise, was published in 1979 and nominated for the National Book Award.
Is it even possible that he didn’t see what was coming?
“Let’s be honest. It was a silly idea in the first place,” wrote a columnist for The Shreveport Journal in 1983—when the dust from the Project Life debacle was still settling. “Anyone with half a brain would have known that the Pritikin Diet was doomed from the first.”
Pritikin was a serious-minded man who loathed unhealthy eating. In media interviews he was a quote machine, railing against the increasingly nefarious junk food industry. He described McDonald’s as “an organization bent on destroying our population.” Of pizza he said: “I can’t imagine the Italians could have invented this suicide dish.” He called ice cream, which he hated, “a chemical feast.” He made frequent appearances in print outlets and on television, extolling the merits of his fitness program, hawking his book, and claiming that healthy eating could reverse the progress of heart disease. 60 Minutes featured Pritikin and his diet in a story that aired on October 16, 1977. Profiles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the British medical journal Lancet followed. From that point on Pritikin was a celebrity in the personal wellness realm.
Then Project Life happened.
Outwardly, Pritikin was optimistic.
“Basically, all I’m trying to do is wipe out heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension all in the next five years in our country,” Pritikin told The Philadelphia Inquirer in a full-page profile that portrayed him as a rogue nutritionist. “I’m trying to get the whole country to change. It’s just started, and it can’t be stopped.”
The kickoff banquet for Project Life was held in Natchitoches on January 21, 1980. It was the height of Carnival—a month out from Fat Tuesday and one of the first few weeks when the crawfish are large enough to boil—when Louisianians typically engorge themselves on king cake, gumbo, and booze. It was an objectively terrible time to notify the entire population of a Louisiana town that they had been placed on a diet.
The description of Pritikin’s experience at the Project Life kickoff, as retold in the 1988 biography Pritikin: The Man Who Healed America’s Heart, begins: “The banquet turned out to be the first in a series of disasters.”
Pritikin and his promotional team wanted to serve items from the Pritikin Diet at the kickoff banquet, but the Natchitoches chefs who were hired to prepare the evening’s menu were unable to cook to Pritikin’s specifications. More accustomed to preparing fried catfish, crawfish étouffée, and deep-fried meat pies, the NSU chefs royally fucked up Pritikin’s broccoli soup recipe and served it to guests. The soup was so putrid that Pritikin stood up and shouted to everyone in attendance that they should not eat it because it had been “burned.” Members of the press in attendance saw the storyline emerging and seized upon it. The quotes that ran in a nationally syndicated Associated Press article on the morning after the banquet are among the most savage reviews of a meal that I have ever read.
The authors of Pritikin’s biography summarized one of the unfortunate reviews as follows: “Someone said that the soup ‘tasted like boiled cigarettes,’ a quote that was picked up by the wire services, and reported around the country, and from there it was all downhill.”
Governor Edwin Edwards himself—whose idea the banquet was celebrating—also eviscerated the banquet fare. Surrounded by press at the end of the night, Edwards said that he’d “just as soon die ten years earlier as eat that stuff—but it is a noble experiment.” Those last three words, “a noble experiment,” set in motion a protracted campaign of mockery that sold an awful lot of newspapers, books, and meat pies, and may or may not have killed a man.
All the way up in New York City’s Greenwich Village, celebrated humorist Calvin Trillin may have chuckled aloud. Perhaps he called his beloved wife, Alice, over to read the hilarious turn of phrase that he’d read in an Associated Press news brief from Louisiana. Many of Trillin’s best ideas came from Alice. Maybe she said something like: “‘A Noble Experiment’…that’s a great name for a story, hon.”
Trillin was famous for writing fish-out-of-water takes on regional American cuisines, whether that meant Cincinnati chili, Kansas City barbecue, or Breaux Bridge crawfish. In the 1970s and 1980s, his influence as a humorist rivaled that of Mark Twain or James Thurber. Americans read Trillin’s work in The New Yorker, The Nation, and Moment (a magazine dedicated to chronicling Jewish life in the U.S.), as well as in dozens of major newspapers that frequently ran his syndicated humor columns.
Before Trillin published his first word about Natchitoches meat pies, numerous articles had already been written about Pritikin’s attempt to help a Louisiana town shed extra pounds. Out of the dozens of stories that ran in newspapers across the U.S. following the Project Life banquet, I was unable to locate a single example of a story that took Pritikin’s efforts seriously. Headlines included:
“Jambalaya No, Broccoli Yes,” Durham Morning Herald
“Home of Hot Sauce to Go Bland for Health’s Sake,” The Baltimore Sun
“No Jambalaya for Folks in This Diet Project,” The Enterprise Journal
“Natchitoches Would Rather Stay Fat Than Go On Diet,” Hattiesburg American
The banquet fiasco played out in the media for months. Project Life director Lum Ellis didn’t always make things better when he opened his considerably large mouth to speak. When Ellis found himself under attack by the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association, who’d mobilized in resistance to Project Life, he began saying increasingly combative things to the press. He began referring to the residents of Natchitoches as “these people.”
“You’d have thought I was a Communist,” Ellis told one newspaper after personally being attacked by the spokesman for the cattlemen’s association. “A diet of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and low-fat animal products seems as foreign to these people as Tokyo.”
On another occasion, Ellis and his wife, Donna, were interviewed together about Project Life’s biggest challenges.
“It’s very hard to change these people because they’re very attached to fried chicken,” Lum said.
“These poor people would come in and say ‘I’ll do anything to get rid of my high blood pressure, just don’t make me stop eating fried chicken’,” Donna said.
But as “anyone with half a brain” could have told Lum, fried chicken was not the problem. Natchitoches meat pies were the damn problem. Project Life had selected a town with its own eponymous meat pie—which locals had eaten since Spaniards brought empanadas to the area in the 1700s—and asked residents to eat less meat.
Project Life continually introduced new ways for Natchitoches residents to reduce their fat intake and burn calories. Pritikin developed a points system that asked study participants to keep track of their score throughout the day. Avoiding eggs was worth nine points; eliminating cream was worth three points. “The people of Natchitoches were asked to score a total of 90 to 100 points each day to graduate to good health,” according to the Pritikin biography. Pritikin sent envoys from his Longevity Centers to lead free fitness walks and healthy cooking classes in Natchitoches. Project Life even developed a recipe for fat-free meat pies made with whole wheat flour, fatless white chicken meat, and no salt. They sold the pies at the annual Natchitoches Christmas Festival.
“We’re making about 2,500 meat pies,” Ellis told The Shreveport Times. “I predict we’ll sell out of them. There’s been a lot of interest in this.”
Pritikin’s public evisceration at the hands of the press somehow managed to worsen with each passing week. Out-of-town journalists seldom interviewed Pritikin, opting in favor of another knee-slapper of a sound byte from Lum or to survey local barflys about the benefits of healthy living.
“If I got to eat something that chokes me, I’d just as soon stay fat,” an unnamed local told The Associated Press for a story that ran under the headline “Fried Chicken Wins Over Pritikin Diet.” This kind of hicksploitation made up the majority of media coverage dedicated to Project Life, which was seldom referred to as “Project Life” in headlines. In hundreds of headlines, Project Life was almost always “the Pritikin Diet.”
The Natchitoches local who could most reliably be counted on to mock Pritikin was James Lasyone, owner of Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen. Lasyone was a Donald Trump-like master of simultaneously mocking his perceived enemy while promoting himself. He pandered to lazy journalists’ expectations of small-town Louisiana, never failing to point out that he’d quit school after the sixth grade, was “real bad” at English, and could hardly write his own name. It’s almost like he knew what he was doing.
“I never knew too many people who were on the diet,” Lasyone told The Shreveport Times. “I don’t think it helped the town of Natchitoches except for publicity purposes. I think it put Natchitoches on the map because we had so many filming crews in here at the time.”
Calvin Trillin’s story about Project Life, entitled “Noble Experiment,” ran in The New Yorker on Jan. 12, 1981, almost exactly a year after Edwin Edwards voiced his disdain for Pritikin’s broccoli soup. In the story, Trillin wrote that Pritikin “has most of the characteristics common to the sort of self-ordained Southern California health savants who sometimes manage to energize in me an otherwise dormant affection for the American Medical Association.”
“Noble Experiment” appears in Trillin’s book, Third Helpings, one of three collections of Trillin’s food writing. Those three books, collectively known as The Tummy Trilogy, rank among the most influential collections of food writing ever published. (Food writing changed after Calvin Trillin in ways that are hard to explain to anyone who is not a nerd. It went from the unrepentant snobbery of Ruth Riechl and Craig Claiborne to the laid-back, “wandering white dude” vibe of Guy Fieri and Anthony Bourdain.) After Trillin’s story, every wannabe Trillin in the U.S. had to file their own chucklebucket story about those fat, whacky folks down in Louisiana and the gaunt, plant-eating guru from California who tried to change their ways.
Even though Project Life officially ended in January 1981, the public thrashing dealt to Pritikin continued for so long that it was still occasionally cropping up in early 1985, when Pritikin used a razor blade to sever the arteries in both of his elbows, bleeding to death in his hospital bed at Albany Medical Center. He’d survived a brush with leukemia in 1958 and—presumably due to the benefits of a healthy diet—he’d successfully lived in remission for nearly 25 years. His leukemia returned with a vengeance in 1978.
The late 1970s and early 1980s had been especially cruel to Pritikin. Overextended financially, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1978, the same year that his cancer returned. In 1980 Pritikin was a target of frequent missives from the medical establishment, with the American Medical Association publicly labeling Pritikin a fraud. Their attacks often highlighted the fact that Pritikin was a college dropout. In 1981, Pritikin’s branded line of prepackaged diet foods debuted in stores, where they failed to sell.
Pritikin spent the last few years of his life traveling constantly and, according to his wife, Eileen, working 80 or more hours per week. While Project Life wasn’t the only thing that went wrong in Pritikin’s life in the years before his suicide, being relentlessly humiliated for several years by most major newspapers in the U.S. cannot have helped matters. Following Pritikin’s autopsy, the medical examiner publicly released his surprising findings—Pritikin’s heart and blood vessels were “as clean as those of a child.”
“Frankly, I think the man was onto something,” said Dr. Ken Foon.
The war of words between Lum Ellis—who moved to New Orleans following the failure of Project Life—and Natchitoches locals continued to play out in the press. Surveying the flaming wreckage of Project Life, Ellis listed several reasons why the project had failed. One of the reasons he proposed was that very few people in Natchitoches could read.
“For people who can’t read, a recipe doesn’t mean a thing,” Ellis said, presumably on his way out of town.
Locals mostly didn’t seem to care one way or another what Lum Ellis or Nathan Pritikin had to say about their way of life. But at least one Natchitoches business owner was willing to put words to what may have been Edwin Edwards’s hope for Project Life all along.
In a story that ran everywhere from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Kokomo, Indiana, James Lasyone told The Associated Press that he’d sold so many meat pies thanks to Project Life that he’d bought himself a brand new Cadillac as well as a Betamax recorder. The Betamax was necessary, he said, so that he wouldn’t miss any more of his frequent appearances on television due to being too busy selling meat pies.
“I wish they’d do the whole thing all over again,” Lasyone said.
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