Durham's diet culture has evolved from the days when Rice Dieters shed their clothing along with the pounds
|by Clancy Nolan Independent Weekly
| Courtesy Of The News & Observer
When the billboard came down, Durham's notoriety
as a diet center also lost a little weight.
It's 5 p.m. at the Duke Rice Diet Program, situated in a
pair of white buildings set back among trees at the corner
of Cole Mill and Rose of Sharon roads in Durham. It's dinnertime,
and Marjorie Jacobs is holding court over a bowl of brown
rice and stir-fried bok choy in the dining room. A brunette
with a Long Island accent and Anjelica Huston cheekbones,
Jacobs sports an American flag button pinned to a gray hooded
sweatshirt with an embroidered playboy bunny insignia at
the breast. Her conversation is as unselfconscious as her
attire. She is effusive about the Rice Diet Program.
"I am an Italian Jew and I came into the world at 6 pounds 3 ounces," she
announces. "This place saved my life. My top weight was 336.7 pounds and
I have tried everything in the world from Weight Watchers to pregnant horse urine.
I came here because I need to be alive."
Like many of the 40 or so diners in the sparsely furnished dining hall, Jacobs
is surprisingly forthcoming, sharing her dieting history as generously as she
passes samples of food across the table. Jacobs is a veteran of the Rice Diet
program. She came to Durham for the first time in 1985 and says it's the only
diet that works.
Greensboro author Jean Renfro Anspaugh would agree. In 1988, she sold most
of her belongings, dropped out of law school, and, loading her 294-pound body
into her car, drove from California to join the program. She never left. Anspaugh
found work, relocated, and eventually enrolled in UNC's folklore department,
graduating with a master's thesis on Durham's diet culture. Last fall she published
Fat Like Us, a collection of candid first-person dieting stories about the
Rice Diet experience.
Anspaugh interviewed more than a thousand past and present Ricers. Her collection
paints a colorful portrait of the Rice Diet, from the journey to Durham and
rites of passage like weighing in and eating a "last supper," to
cheating on the diet (what Anspaugh calls "backsliding") and even
sexual awakening. The book mirrors Anspaugh's own experience. She is like many
patients who have gone through the 60-year-old program. Faced with chronic
obesity since age 8, Anspaugh has been dieting for most of her life. "I
had tried everything: Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Physicians Weight Loss
Center, Overeaters Anonymous," she says. "I had always known about
Durham, and I knew that one day I would come."
Dieters have been coming to Durham for decades. Until the early '90s, motorists
driving into Durham via Interstate 85 were greeted by a sign advertising the
Duke Rice Diet, which read "Welcome to Durham: Diet Capital of the World." The
appellation acknowledged the diet industry hotbed resting snugly within Duke
University's low, stone walls. Between the three Duke-sponsored programs (the
Duke Rice Diet, Duke Diet and Fitness Center, and the Center for Living) and
Structure House, a privately owned offshoot, dieting added up to big business
for Durham County.
It still does. But when the unmistakable billboard came down, Durham's notoriety
as a diet center also lost a little weight. People like Marjorie Jacobs are
still coming to Durham with a lot on their minds and even more on their frames,
and leaving with a lighter load. What's changed is the methods for getting
them there, and with a change in methods comes a change in the overall Triangle
dieting culture. Anspaugh was encouraged to stay in Durham until she was thin.
For Jacobs and other dieters today, the focus is on sending dieters home, but
better equipped to manage their weight.
The Rice Diet was created by Walter Kempner, a Jewish kidney specialist recruited
by Duke and brought from Germany in the 1930s. Kempner's research at the university
led him to the belief that disease can be prevented and cured through diet,
and he soon began prescribing a high protein, low sodium diet of mainly white
rice and canned fruit. Immediately successful in combating hypertension, high
blood pressure and a range of diseases associated with diabetes, the diet gained
notoriety, and groups of wealthy people began flocking to Durham to lose weight.
They paid about $150 per week for food, eating at a ramshackle house on Mangum
Street, renting apartments and spending their days walking around town. The
only requirements for participants were that they weighed in each morning and
ate all their meals at the Rice House. The program has an impressive list of
alumni that includes Buddy Hackett, Wendy Wasserstein, Dom DeLuise, Mario Puzo
and, allegedly, Elvis.
Kempner seemed to hold a mystical control over patients. He was a wiry man,
who Ricers say always wore a blue blazer and white duck pants, drove around
with the top down in his convertible Lincoln--regardless of the weather--and
maintained a thick German accent despite decades in the United States. His
strict policies, including forcing dieters to collect all of their urine in
a 24-hour period, testing it for sodium intake, and posting the results on
a community bulletin board, earned him the description, in a 1983 Penthouse
magazine article, of "somebody's Nazi grandfather."
Penthouse visited the program during the dieting craze of the '70s and '80s,
a period during which Durham was known as the "Lourdes of Lard." One
of the magazine's editors arrived to shed some weight and discovered an unexpected
bonus: sex. Anspaugh devotes an entire chapter ("Durham as Sexual Paradise")
to the subject and says sex is a natural outlet for people who are away from
home, placed in a new town and denied their basic coping mechanism.
"You are with people like yourself, you are losing weight and feeling
great about yourself," she says. "Transformation brings with it many
things ... and I don't know where Durham's commercial sex industry would be
if it weren't for diet programs."
Anspaugh's glossary of slang terms--Crisco disco: dieters' night at the Hilton;
Cooking your own bacon: losing weight; Century Club: the board at the Rice
House displaying the names of recent dieters who have lost one hundred pounds
or more--includes its share of sexual innuendo and euphemism. Sin City: concentrations
of strip malls and tempting fast food restaurants on Hillsborough Road. Pulling
the apron: having sex (after one loses a large amount of weight the skin of
the abdomen sags and must be lifted in order to perform).
The erotic power of dieting was not confined to the patients. In a 1993 lawsuit,
a Ricer named Sharon Ryan alleged that Walter Kempner engaged in a long-standing
sexual relationship with her, whipping her with a riding crop when she strayed
from the diet, having sex on the floor of his house and keeping her as his
sexual slave for 20 years. The lawsuit was settled out of court after Kempner's
death. Anspaugh writes that "Duke did acknowledge that Dr. Kempner had
used a riding crop on several patients in the past, but stopped at the request
of the university." Anspaugh also records Kempner's response: "I
have never had sex on the floor. My house has some nice couches and sofas.
I would never have sex on the floor."
| Photo By Alex Maness
Jean Renfro Anspaugh's book paints a colorful portrait of
he period of asceticism and sexual liberation that Anspaugh describes has been
muted in recent years by changes in the Rice Diet culture. Dieters used to stay
in Durham for months and sometimes years, trying to reach goal weight. Insurance
rarely covers the diet these days, so dieters are less likely to stay for extended
periods of time, time that allowed for a dieter's community to flourish. "I
think a lot of that culture came from dieters all living together at Duke Towers,
which they don't do as much anymore," says Dr. Robert Rosati, current director
of the program. "And I think age is a factor. Our average age now is somewhere
in the 50s."
When Kempner's influence on the diet lessened, the program began to loosen
up. "The fact of the matter is that things have been getting less strict
since Kempner started to age," says Rosati. "I would watch him talk
to patients with hypertension and diabetes who would ask if they could have
one slice of turkey for Thanksgiving. He would say 'No, that could kill you.'
And I used to wonder, how does he know that? Well, he couldn't have known that.
But he knew human nature. If you tell someone there can be an exception, then
there will always be an exception."
Instead of focusing solely on reaching goal weight, Rice Diet staffers attempt
to teach patients a few basic things and hope that they leave eating less salt,
more vegetarian diets, and staying mindful about what they eat. A typical length
of stay for Rice Dieters today is about a month, costing approximately $4,200.
The menu has expanded from white rice and canned fruit to include basmati and
jasmine rice, some vegetables and a wider variety of fresh fruit--even fish
on Fridays. And the program keeps dieters occupied during the day. Where Kempner
advocated only walks between meals, the Rice Diet has now packed the time in
between meals with daily programs including Tai Chi, meditation, yoga, and
classes on reading food labels.
"Maybe we keep people out of trouble," Rosati says.
At the program's current weekly fireside chats, Ricers gather on couches
at one end of the house and discuss their concerns and ask questions. Curiously
enough, there are a number of pictures of fruit on the walls of the Rice House,
including a poster-sized print of eggplants and leeks, and a Picasso-esque
bowl with a pear. The avuncular Dr. Rosati, tall and ruddy-cheeked with short
graying curls, sits patiently in front of a stone fireplace while the discussion
takes on the combined form of group therapy, catch-all reference desk and comedy
show. In one session, Rosati begins by telling the group of 20 patients something
that sounds like he's said for years: "If you are overweight, you always
have something to eat. Yourself. You are like well-informed cannibals. Overweight
people are never hungry. You only think you are hungry."
"How could I have been so stupid," a man in a plaid shirt says
under his breath.
Everyone laughs and the conversation shifts to hoarding food. Despite small
portions, some of the Ricers don't finish their food at a meal, taking something
like an apple or mini box of rice puffs home in case they get hungry. The man
in the plaid shirt is listing food that he has saved from the Rice House: three
grapefruits, 32 boxes of shredded wheat, six raisins. Marjorie Jacobs admits
to having an unopened bottle of wine "in case of company." Dr. Rosati
tries to dissuade them from the habit.
"Why hoard food, guys?" he asks.
"To entice starving Ricer women up to your room," comes a response,
But Rosati cuts through personalities, a joke about having to join two diet
programs just to get enough to eat, and laughter-filled accusations over stolen
Oreos, offering a theory on relationships with food. "Either it is because
of danger or it is out of habit," he says. "I think that somewhere
along the line, you started eating because of danger, then it became habitual.
At home there is stress, relationships, family, reality, and that is dangerous."
As the conversation shifts to going home, Rosati offers a Rice-Diet-as-castle
metaphor: "There are three endings to the story after you find what you're
looking for. We know that rice and fruit are good for us. That's the truth.
When you find this truth you have three options. One, you can go back to the
castle, say 'I've got the truth, and kiss the rest of the world off.'
"Two, you can say, 'Well, the rest of the world isn't buying the truth,
but they like detective stories. So, I am going to write detective stories and
at some point I will throw in the truth and they will read it and they'll get
it,'" he says, suggesting something about the possibility of subverting
the mainstream eating culture.
His final recommendation is more pragmatic. "Three, you can go out there,
say 'I've got the truth' do the best you can, and go back to the castle every
so often to get your strength back.
"I prefer three. I would rather remain engaged with the world," Rosati
The challenge for dieters is continuing the program at home. Marjorie Jacobs
is worried. "I am going home in a few days and I am very nervous about
gaining weight," she announces to the group. "I have been successful
this time, but I won't know for sure until I get home."
Dr. Rosati is sympathic, and tells Jacobs to keep in touch on a weekly basis.
"OK guys, all you gotta do is try," Rosati concludes. "Marjorie,
call me every Friday. You can confess your sins."