Today, devotees add coconut oil to coffee, dab it on acne and, following Gwyneth Paltrow's example, swirl it around in their mouths to fight tooth decay. Starbucks has launched a coconut-milk latte. And the coconut-water business has surged to $400 million, with a little help from Madonna and Rihanna.
No one would be more delighted at the coconut's rising star than August Engelhardt, a sun-worshipping German nudist and history's most radical cocovore.
From 1902 to 1919, Engelhardt lived on a beautiful South Pacific island, eating nothing but the fruit of Cocos nucifera, which he believed was the panacea for all mankind's woes. Except that a coconut mono-diet proved to be a terrible idea. At the end of his life, der Kokovore was reduced to a mentally ill, rheumatic, severely malnourished sack of bones with ulcers on his legs. He was only 44.
Engelhardt was resurrected from near-oblivion by Swiss writer Christian Kracht's marvelous 2012 novel, Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas, which fictionalizes the German cocovore's bizarre and poignant story. The English translation by Daniel Bowles was published this year in the U.S. to fine reviews.
Kracht's interest in Engelhardt was sparked by a chance encounter. One day at a yard sale in Murnau, Germany, he came across a sepia-tinted postcard of a scrawny, bearded man in a checked loincloth standing under a palm tree.
"He looked like a proto-hippie, and very modern," Kracht told The Salt. "I really wanted to get to know this person. But there was nothing known about him at the time — no Wikipedia page (there is one now) or anything at all. The only thing I could find was a thesis by a student at the University of Auckland. So I went and met him in New Zealand, but somehow it wasn't enough."
The novelist in Kracht was itching "to embroider Engelhardt's life story," especially "since coconuts are intrinsically funny." Imperium, a stylish satire, invents meetings with Thomas Mann and Kafka, and ends with a leprosy-afflicted Engelhardt eating his own thumb.
But even without a stich of embroidery, Engelhardt's story beggars belief.
Born in Nuremberg in 1875, August Engelhardt was among the disaffected youngsters drawn to the back-to-nature Lebensreform (Life Reform) movement sweeping through Germany and Switzerland at the time. Its proponents yearned after an unspoiled Eden where people ate vegetables and raw food.
Engelhardt was especially taken by Gustav Schlickeysen's 1877 dietary treatise, Fruit and Bread: A Scientific Diet. Influenced by Darwinism, the book claimed that since the natural food of apes was uncooked food and grain, that was also "the proper food for man."
Engelhardt took it even further: For him, even bread and fruit were tainted. In his mind, the only immaculate and mystical fleshpot was the coconut, with its snowy white meat and translucent water.
In 1898, he and fellow vegetarian August Bethmann laid out their vision in a pamphlet called A Carefree Future: The New Gospel.
As the pamphlet's grandiose subtitle makes plain, Engelhardt's ambitions of a Coconut Camelot, with himself as a nude King Arthur, were driven by much more than dietary compulsions: His was a spiritual quest.
"He believed that since the coconut grew high up in the tree, closest to God and closest to the sun, it was godlike," says Kracht. "And since it had hair and looked like a human head, he thought it came closest to being a man. According to his rather crackpot theory, to be a cocovore was to be a theophage — or eater of God."
But being the custodian of these paradisiacal ideas in stuffy steak-and-sausage Germany was no fun. "He chafed against the constraints of Wilhelminian Germany, which was very Victorian," says Kracht. "One can imagine what a misfit a nudist-vegetarian with a very, very long beard would be in this repressive society. He was ridiculed and wanted to get away."