Think You Know Thoreau? Debunking 5 Common Myths

This summer was Thoreau’s bicentennial birthday bash in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. Two hundred years ago, this American literary hero was born into a world where it wasn’t unheard of to subsist on whatever nutrients were available. So it was quite a declaration when, upon entering adulthood, Thoreau decided to adhere to a proto-ecological, plant-based diet.

As a result of his hard-lined ethos and its immortalization in his famous novel Walden, Thoreau’s first-hand account of his two-year staycation in Massachusetts’ exurban wilderness, many myths about this man’s diet have cropped up over the centuries.

Thankfully, one enterprising Harvard Medical School affiliate named Jean Fain investigated these five dietary myths for NPR in hopes of dispersing the mystery surrounding America’s premiere transcendentalist. What did she find out? Read her findings for yourself.

Myth #1: Thoreau was a vegetarian

“Sorry, not quite,” Laura Dassow Walls, author of the new biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life told NPR.

She goes on to explain that he did indeed experiment with the concept, but in fact, he was more interested in reducing his overall consumption than adhering to a strict dietary classification. Think more Michael Pollan and less PETA.

A good example of his fascination of food intake reduction and frugality comes from his work Walden where he recounts that he reduced costs by eliminating tea, coffee, butter, milk, and exchanging his home-grown beans for rice.

Myth #2: Thoreau ate woodchuck

In his novel, Thoreau claims that he ate a woodchuck. This claim is so outrageous that it has been a matter of scholarly debate as to whether the statement was metaphorical or literal.

Walls believes that he did in actually eat the rodent, but that it’s described “musky” flavor made it a one-time dish for the author.

Myth #3: Thoreau invented raisin bread

Raisin ? cannelle sur blé complet ce matin?#plateaumontroyal #mileend #bakery #boulangerie #raisinbread

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Logically it seems impossible that Thoreau would have invented raisin bread. This bakery staple is an ancient combination that dates back at least to a 1671 British cookbook. Nevertheless, this frugal homesteader continues to receive credit for mixing raisins into his homemade bread.

Just ask Google, “Who invented raisin bread?” Even she will firmly state that it was Henry David Thoreau.

Myth #4: Thoreau stole pies

There is not a speck of evidence either to support or refute the myth that Thoreau stole pies from windowsills. However, the myth persists.

Perhaps the great transcendentalist had a sweet tooth, but he also regularly came home to his mother for meals where it was very likely he not only got pie as dessert, but also had a few to take home with him back to Walden.

Myth #5: Malnutrition killed Thoreau

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Some say it was tuberculosis. Other say it was malnutrition. Whatever killed Thoreau, it is still a matter of hot debate in scholarly circles.

Lately, however, there are ideas that perhaps it was Thoreau’s diet that caused the TB that eventually killed him. According to NPR, “The late Benjamin Sandler, MD, who specialized in preventive nutrition, theorized that Thoreau’s high-carb, low-protein “Walden Diet” made him especially susceptible to the lung infection that abruptly ended his life at age 44.”

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