Yesterday’s New York Times carried a bizarre article about the passing of the freak shows that used to be a part of every carnival, circus and state fair.  The author of the piece interviewed Ward Hall, the self-styled King of the Midway and the operator of the only freak show still in existence.

Back in the heyday, in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, a fair number of people with deformities were happy to let you look at them for a price. Not only were freak shows the draw of the carnival, they were the carnival.

Now, thanks to the advent of more popular carnival rides, the freak show is a thing of the past…except for Mr. Wards traveling band of curiosities, who include Poobah the fire eating dwarf, a sword swallower, a four-legged woman, and a man who drives nails into his head called, appropriately enough, the Human Blockhead.
Mr. Ward, bored with his retirement in Florida, decided to round up the old gang to tour North America once again.  He sees the freak show business as a legitimate way for people who are different to make a decent living and blames political correctness for its demise.  Says Mr. Ward:

Nowadays, it’s in the contracts: no freaks.  Do-gooders run things.  I’m telling you, this life was very good for freaks. These kind of people made money. They were hams, but they could never be actors. Who’s putting a bearded lady or a one-armed girl in a leading lady role on Broadway? This way they lived a great life. No more. It’s ridiculous.

As Mr. Ward was recruiting his old team for deployment he got a call from one of his former carnies:

The fat man — Howard Huge — he wanted to come out with us. But I said, ‘Howard, a fat man couldn’t sell 10 cents’ worth of fried chicken. Everybody in America’s fat.’

You want to see a fat man, try the Cracker Barrel, you’ll see a dozen at once. Same with the tattooed lady. Ditto with pierced women. Nothing special.

That’s the sad commentary on the extent of the obesity epidemic.  Several decades ago morbidly obese people were so unusual that other people would actually pay just to see them.  Now they are everywhere.  Howard Huge may have worked to maintain his obesity, but we all work to fight our own.  And I can tell you from personal experience that if I let myself go I could be of Howard Huge-ian proportions in pretty short order.   I was well on my way once.  And I fight it every single day.
What has changed?  No one in my circle of family elders was particularly obese.  And, more interestingly, no one really worked to keep from being obese: non-obesity just happened.  Now, it seems, everyone fights it, and many lose the battle.  I think the old eat-less, exercise-more mantra is pretty much BS and a smoke screen that keeps people from really looking too hard into what causes the real problem.
Is it fructose?  High-fructose corn syrup didn’t enter the food chain until about 1970, which correlates with the kick-off of the obesity epidemic.  Is it trans fats?  They’ve been around for over a century.  Is it the large-scale switch over to vegetable oils instead of the saturated fats we’ve been consuming for millennia?  Is it that we all dine out more often than we dine in, and, in the process, lose control of our portions and what goes in our food?  Is it a virus or other infectious agent?  Is it an unrecognized  nutritional deficiency?  Is it all the nutritional gurus exhorting us to eat all carbs all the time?
I wish I had the correct answer.  I have my opinions, but they’re just that: opinions.  If and when it is ever figured out for sure, I imagine that it will be a combination of the above factors.  Whatever the cause, I do know the best cure for the greatest number of people, and that is a high-quality, whole-food, low-carb diet.
Until more and more people recognize this cure, I think Mr. Ward will have more luck displaying the Stick Man, which, in this day and age, is the real freak.
Hurry, hurry, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Step right up.  One dollar buys you a look at a normal weight individual.


  1. Mike
    Now that’s what I like — a post where you head to the border and just when I wonder where in hell you’re going, snap, back home you come with the low-carb connection. Pretty cool. And hey, put me in touch with Mr. Ward (or is it Mr Hall) because at 6′-3″ & 155 lbs. I might be able to pick up some extra cash as his Stick Man.
    Hi James–
    I’m sure you could make a lot more money as Stick Man than the white hat job in SA.
    Let’s hit the links

  2. Sir many thanks yr time vis gut rehab.
    You folks surely like rielletes ?
    Hi Simon–
    I do like rilletes.  I’ve only eaten such in France, however.  Don’t know if there is availability here.

  3. Great post! I find it truly sad when I get to the airport every Monday and I’m one of the very few normal sized folks there. I watch the people shuffling to their gates after swinging by Starbucks for a sugar and cream-laden coffee and a low-fat hunk of grain and sugar (some call them muffins).
    Hi Scott–
    Just had the similar airport experience that I’m going to post about soon.  The really sad thing about the scenario you describe is that many of these people are drinking their sugar-laden coffees with skim milk and eating low-fat muffins and believing all the while that they are doing something healthful.  It beggars belief.

  4. It does seem to all come back to sugar. There were some stats in Atkins DANDR saying average consumption per person in the US was 12lbs in 1828, but that in the 1990s it was somethign like 154 lbs. It has to make a difference to overall weight.
    I blame the addition of sugar to everything, especially soda style drinks. We need to get back to relatively unprocessed foodstuffs.
    Hi Odille–
    You’ll get no argument from me on this one.  Not only has the consumption of sugar risen markedly, the rise in the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has been even greater.  HFCS is now a part of virtually every processed food.  It’s best to be avoided if at all possible.

  5. Off the subject, if you don’t mind:
    Loren Cordain is obviously a very smart, well studied man who has put a tremendous amount of time and effort into researching the very pertinent topic of paleolithic nutrition. That is why I get so confused by some of his assertions.
    I am aware of your relationship with him, and I’m guessing you probably know his arguments better than just about anyone, so I thought I’d ask your opinion.
    Basically, I don’t understand how his basic premise can be to eat only foods similar to what were available in paleolithic times, because that’s what we’re adapted to consume, and then recommend things like CANOLA oil over natural saturated fats!
    Nor do I see the logic in arguing that we should eat lean meats and a low saturated fat diet, because the animals humans ate back then only had semi-high levels of fats, including saturated fats, for a small part of each year. But then go on to recommend fairly large amounts of fruits, a food that for most paleolithic people was probably available even less often than higher fat animals.
    Am I missing something or have you argued similar points with him? I just don’t understand how he can logically come to such conclusions. Just because humans ate smaller amounts of fats for most of the year, wasn’t fat still a prized food that was eaten readily whenever they could get their hands on it? Maybe these already robust paleolithic humans would have been even more healthy if they were able to eat as much good fat as most of us are if we try to.
    Finally, here is my view on nutrition. If you have a moment to comment on it too, I sure would appreciate it:
    1) The foods available during paleolithic times and foods similar to those available today are, without a doubt, the healthiest for us to eat.
    2) There is no magic ratio of protein to fats to carbs, or even saturated to monounsaturated to polyunsaturated fats for humans to consume. As long as we get some of each type in natural wholefood forms, we’ll be ok. In other words, humans, being omnivorous by design, are extremely adaptable to different ratios of nutrients, AS LONG AS THE FOODS ARE ALL NATURAL AND MOSTLY PALEOLITHIC. The main point here is just because humans didn’t get to eat a lot of animal fat (from healthy free-range animals) as often as they would have preferred back then, it does not mean that if they ate more of this fat they would be less healthy for it.
    3) The key is as long as we choose paleolithic foods as much as possible, we can eat varying amounts of them according to tastes, time of year, etc and be fine.
    Sorry so long….
    Daniel Chong
    Hi Daniel–
    Loren Cordain is a smart man who has done a tremendous amount of research.  He happens to buy into the idea that saturated fat is atherogenic; I don’t buy into that argument.  His data on the fat composition of wild animals that he has evaluated show that they contain a lot of monounsaturated fat and not a whole lot of saturated fat.  From this he has decided that early man, who consumed a lot of animals,  must have eaten primarily monounsaturated fat and not a lot of saturated fat.  I would argue that most of the animals that early man ate, in fact, that early man hunted to extinction, contained a lot more saturated fat than do game animals today.  Who knows how much saturated fat was found in mammoths, mastodons, cave bears, ancient bison, giant sloths, and all the other large game animals that don’t exist today.
    Since Dr. Cordain believes that monounsaturated fat is the ideal fat, it makes some sense that he would recommend canola oil, which contains a fair amount of monounsaturated fat.
    I agree with you that foods available today that are similar to those available in Paleolithic times are the ideal foods.  I don’t necessarily agree that as long as we stick to these foods we will never have a problem irrespective of how much of them we eat or whatever the ratios of fat/protein/carbohydrate.  Honey and high-carb fruits were certainly available in Paleolithic times, and it would be a mistake to assume that they could be eaten to the exclusion of everything else and promote health.
    We had a patient in our practice in Little Rock whose history is illuminative.  Our patient was a real back-to-the-earth type.  She was a single mom with a couple of kids.  She bought a little farm and raised all her own produce, milked a goat for milk, and ate eggs from her free-range chickens.  The majority of her calories came from vegetables that she grew herself, organically.  She was a little overweight when she started this venture and gained more and more weight over the couple of years before coming to see us.  When we analyzed her diet we discovered that she was eating primarily carbohydrates with a little fat and protein from the goat milk and free-range eggs.  So, despite the fact that all her carbohydrates were from organically-grown vegetables, she was overweight and pre-diabetic.  We increased her protein and fat and markedly reduced the amount of carb she ate, and she responded beautifully.
    Hope this answers your questions.

  6. You ask: “What has changed?” I’ve been thinking about and wondering about that a lot lately. None of the usual explanations seem to make completely cover it.
    You say you have an opinion — I’d like to hear it!
    Hi Peggyjo–
    I’ll probably be posting on my opinions before long.

  7. Sir have a go at making it ..its dead easy and for gastronauts such as yee ( and Mrs) it’s almost criminal not to.
    The best i’ve ever eaten was in Australia made at first attempt by a lass i knew so just goes to show you.
    What do you call a well balanced Australian.. an individual with a chip on both shoulders !
    Hi Simon–
    Hmmm, making rilettes, eh?  I’ll see if I can talk the bride into giving it a try.
    I’ll keep you posted.

  8. Rillettes are very easy and, like pemmican will keep a long time unrefrigerated. I haven’t tried years, but I’ve eaten pork rillettes after one year. Duck/goose confit uses a similar approach. Basically, it’s the same idea as pemmican – remove the water and replace it with fat.
    Hi Janet–
    You’re my second recommendation to make rillettes.  If they’re truly that easy, maybe we’ll give them a try.  I’ll foist the actual making off on the bride, then perhaps she’ll blog about it.

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