Guest Post: Bernarr MacFadden’s Physical Culture Cookbook

Bernarr MacFadden’s Physical Culture Cookbook

It's an odd thing that given the current obsessions with healthy eating that few bodybuilders produce cookbooks for the general public.[i] Bodybuilders, after all, manage to do what a large majoirty of the population seek to do. That is lose weight, look better naked and maybe add some muscle mass.

Such a dearth in gourmet bodybuilding as it were is in stark contrast to the early foundations of the sport, which saw dozens of cookbook and health works printed by enthusiastic ‘physical culturists’. Broadly understood as a late nineteenth and early twentieth century concern with the cultivation of the body, physical culture was in many ways the forerunner to both bodybuilding and also the general ‘keep fit’ message echoed around in today’s media.

Preaching a message of weight training, relaxation, keep fit and good nutrition, physical culture produced a host of memorable characters, one of whom serves as today’s resident chef. Born in Missouri in 1866, Bernard MacFadden or Bernarr MacFadden as he later became known, was in many ways the face of American physical culture. Running a physical culture empire that extended across magazines, hotels and restaurants, MacFadden’s influence in the American health sphere cannot be underestimated. Nor can his boisterous promotion of physical culture. Indeed, MacFadden’s rallying call was

Weakness is a Crime! Don’t be a Criminal.

Words to live by, I’m sure we’ll all agree… For further insights into MacFadden see the excellent, Robert Ernst, Weakness is a crime: The life of Bernarr Macfadden (Syracuse Univ Pr, 1991).

Alongside his publications of monthly physical culture magazines, monographs on folk medicine and even family planning, MacFadden found the time to collaborate with a fellow physical culturist, Mary Richardson, MacFadden produced a ‘Physical Culture Cookbook’ aimed at directing not only health advice but healthy recipes to his eager American audience. Such an attitude was reflected in the book’s opening pages which declared that

Food, properly cooked, properly eaten, in proper quantities, has a vast influence upon the strength, beauty and suppleness of the body. The brain, too, draws all its nourishment from the same source, and clear and strong mental faculties depend more upon competent cookery at the present day than we imagine (Bernarr MacFadden and Mary Richardson, The Physical Culture Cookbook (Macfadden Publications, 1901), 4).

Thus the work was not just for the muscle fanatic, but rather for all consumers interested in good health and nutrition. This egalitarian approach was further emphasis in Chapter Two, which contained MacFaddden’s own ‘Rules for Health’.

  • Dinner was served at 10 o'clock and supper at 5 o'clock. Usually fruit of some kind was passed around early in the morning.
  • To those who are compelled to eat at the regular hours of those accustomed to three meals per day, would suggest that they eat some light fruit either at the noon or the morning meal, and the two heavy meals at the other meal hours.
  • Recipes for cooking or preparing the various dishes in the bills of fare will be found on the pages given in parenthesis to the right of each dish mentioned.
  • Salt is the only seasoning allowed.
  • Fruit always means bananas or apples and two other varieties.
  • Especial care necessary to see that all fruit is served at proper ripeness.
  • Whole wheat bread served at every meal.
  • Stewed prunes at all suppers.
  • Strained honey is used instead of sugar.
  • Milk and water served at all meals. Guests are especially requested to abstain from drinking unless to actually satisfy thirst. (5-8)

Surveying the above, we see that McFadden advocated a crude from of intermittent fasting with readers advised to eat just two meals a day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Such meals, as is clear from the below menus, were intended to be quite voluminous and leave the diner full for the day. Furthermore the casting aside of any seasoning other than salt reflected the general physical culture advice of the era, such as George Hackenschmidt’s The Way to Live (39), which generally saw the more common seasonings as harmful to the body.

Including MacFadden’s rules for health marked this work out as a rather unique cooking book. Whereas generally the more popular cookbooks provide recipes based primarily on taste or economy, the Physical Culture Cookbook held health as the most important influencer of cooking. This motivation led to some undeniably healthy but rather bland menu options being provided to the reading public. While MacFadden himself was in favor of vegetarian as opposed to meat eating diets, he still provided menus including animal flesh.[ii]

Sample Menus

Meat-Eater's Menu

Baked Fish, Boiled Potatoes, Onions (stewed)/Baked Lentils Creamed Cabbage,
Fruit and Custard Pudding.

Fruit, Poached Eggs, Honey, Tomato Salad, Whole Wheat, Creamed Potatoes, Hot Corn-Muffins, Nuts and Dates.

Vegetarian Menu

Thick Tomato Soup, Lima Beans, and Green Sugar-Corn, Boiled Potatoes, Cauliflower.


Fruit, Eggs (Omelet), Honey, Hot Whole-Wheat Muffins/Whole Wheat, Rice with Grated Cheese, Nuts and Lettuce Salad.[iii]

Not exactly the most exciting of meals but MacFadden and Richardson had nevertheless found a market for themselves. Originally published in 1901, re-editions continued to appear well into the 1930s. A remarkable achievement for what was admittedly a rather fanatical approach to food. Such longevity proves the interest the American public exhibited for this particular food philosophy. Whether this was due to the work’s healthful recipes or its frugal approach to cooking is unfortunately difficult to ascertain.

Certainly MacFadden’s zeal for cost effective and healthy meals was exhibited most strongly during America’s ‘Great Depression’. Seeking to assuage the hungers of New York’s poor, MacFadden opened a series of penny restaurants, which promised good nutrition at cheap prices.[iv] An egalitarian step that was not without its critics. Recalling his experiences in the 1960s at an MacFadden restaurant, the fictional writer Frank Gruber noted the meat-flavoured sawdust, hard bread rolls and dishwater coffee.[v] Gruber’s opinions aside, through personal experiences, I’ve found the following recipes from MacFadden’s cookbook to be worth the ‘old college try’ (this being a particularly apt expression for me as I used these cooking adventures to delay writing my PhD assignments)!

Recipes Worth Trying

1.     Nut Loaf

Put through the food chopper sufficient nut meats to measure one and one-half cupfuls; almonds, English walnuts, hazel and hickory nuts may be used in any proportions according to taste, also butter nuts and black walnuts, but the latter should be taken in sparing quantity because of their pronounced flavor. Add to the chopped nuts one pint of stale bread crumbs, one teaspoonful of salt. Mix well, add enough boiling water to moisten, cover closely and let stand for ten minutes. Now add another cupful of hot water and turn into a well-greased loaf pan. Bake for an hour in a moderate oven and serve hot with a brown sauce.[vi]

2.     Clam Chowder

Take one quarter pound of bacon, cut into small cubes, and brown in a skillet.
Now put on the fire a pot that will hold four quarts; into this put two quarts of hot water, and into this put the browned bacon cubes; then add one cup of finely cut carrots, and one cup of finely chopped celery, and let all boil for ten minutes; then add one cup of chopped onions, and boil all five minutes more; now add two cups of raw potatoes cut in small cubes, and let the entire mixture boil until the potatoes are soft, then add one quart of strained tomatoes, one teaspoonful of thyme and salt to taste.

In the meantime put tablespoonful of butter in a skillet and let it get very hot, then brown two tablespoonfuls of whole-wheat flour in it'; add one cup of the soup, stir for a few minutes, and pour it into the large pot.

Now strain the liquid off twenty-five clams, chop the clams very fine, put them back into the liquid and put this into the large pot. When all comes to a boil let it boil for three minutes, and the chowder is done.

When put in a cold place it will keep for several days, and will be just as delicious warmed up as fresh.[vii]

3.     Stewed Lamb A La Jardiniere

Select a good-sized breast of lamb, and lay it in a saucepan; pour over it enough hot water to nearly cover it, and put a closely fitting lid on the pot. While it is simmering gently, parboil half a cupful of string or lima beans, half a cupful of green peas (fresh or canned), two small carrots cut into neat, thin slices, and a few clusters of cauliflower. When the lamb is nearly done, lay these vegetables on it; put with them two tomatoes sliced, and cook about fifteen minutes. In serving this dish arrange the vegetables around the meat, and pour over them the gravy, which should be thickened with browned flour after the meat and vegetables have been taken from it.[viii]

Recipes for the More Adventurous 

  1. Creamed Fish

Separate the meat from the bones of any fish that may be left from dinner, and place one side. Break into a bowl one or two eggs, according to amount of fish; add salt and one teaspoonful of plain flour; mix thoroughly.

Pour into a frying pan in which is a little hot butter. Stir until hot. Serve on toast. Add a few drops lemon juice if desired.[ix]

2.     Broiled Sweetbreads

However sweetbreads are cooked, soak them first in salt and water, and then plunge in boiling water to whiten them; wash and parboil a pair of sweetbreads for fifteen minutes and let cool; cut them in half, lengthwise, season with salt, dip in melted butter, and broil over a clear fire for five minutes. Serve with melted butter poured over them.[x]

3.     Peach Cottage Pudding

Stir sliced peaches into a batter made of one-half cup sugar, three tablespoonfuls melted butter, one beaten egg, one cup milk, one pint flour, and one and one-half teaspoonfuls baking powder. Bake in a loaf, and serve with hard sauce.[xi]

Obviously these recipes are just the tip of the iceberg. If you're interested in reading more of McFadden's recipes, you can check out the cookbook here for free.

Happy cooking!

Conor Herffernan is a current PhD Student at University College Dublin, Ireland. His research is concerned with Physical Culture in Ireland from 1893 to 1939. When not cooking physical culture delights or studying, Conor tries his hand at writing through

[i] Though not entirely representative, Gallup polls from 2010 to 2016 suggest that 53% of the American Populace wants to lose weight. ‘Fewer Americans in this Decade Want to Lose Weight’, Gallup, 22 November (2016). Available at
[ii] Note that. See Adam D. Shprintzen, The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921 (UNC Press Books, 2013), 190-191.
[iii] MacFadden and Richardson, The Physical Culture Cookbook, 10-12.
[iv] Andrew F. Smith, Food in America: The Past, Present, and Future of Food, Farming, and the Family Meal (ABC-CLIO, 2017), 40.
[v] Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets (Fantagraphics, 2017), 144.
[vi] MacFadden and Richardson, The Physical Culture Cookbook, 145.
[vii] Ibid., 85-86.
[viii] Ibid., 92.
[ix] Ibid., 121.
[x] Ibid., 96.
[xi] Ibid., 155.


  1. Excellent content. Nowadays, Physical appearance is as matter as education in every field. Healthy diet is necessary for everyone. It keep us active and alert. For more information must this website and get ideas.

  2. I disagree with those who think that bodybuilding can fix all your health issues.I believe that diet should be good enough.Well your post is interesting one check it here.Thanks for sharing this.


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