Mark Twain

At The Appetite-Cure

Short Story by Mark Twain

This establishment's name is Hochberghaus. It is in Bohemia, a short day's journey from Vienna, and being in the Austrian Empire is of course a health resort. The empire is made up of health resorts; it distributes health to the whole world. Its waters are all medicinal. They are bottled and sent throughout the earth; the natives themselves drink beer. This is self-sacrifice apparently--but outlanders who have drunk Vienna beer have another idea about it. Particularly the Pilsner which one gets in a small cellar up an obscure back lane in the First Bezirk--the name has escaped me, but the place is easily found: You inquire for the Greek church; and when you get to it, go right along by--the next house is that little beer-mill. It is remote from all traffic and all noise; it is always Sunday there. There are two small rooms, with low ceilings supported by massive arches; the arches and ceilings are whitewashed, otherwise the rooms would pass for cells in the dungeons of a bastile. The furniture is plain and cheap, there is no ornamentation anywhere; yet it is a heaven for the self-sacrificers, for the beer there is incomparable; there is nothing like it elsewhere in the world. In the first room you will find twelve or fifteen ladies and gentlemen of civilian quality; in the other one a dozen generals and ambassadors. One may live in Vienna many months and not hear of this place; but having once heard of it and sampled it, the sampler will afterward infest it.

However, this is all incidental--a mere passing note of gratitude for blessings received--it has nothing to do with my subject. My subject is health resorts. All unhealthy people ought to domicile themselves in Vienna, and use that as a base, making flights from time to time to the outlying resorts, according to need. A flight to Marienbad to get rid of fat; a flight to Carlsbad to get rid of rheumatism; a flight to Kalteneutgeben to take the water cure and get rid of the rest of the diseases. It is all so handy. You can stand in Vienna and toss a biscuit into Kaltenleutgeben, with a twelve-inch gun. You can run out thither at any time of the day; you go by phenomenally slow trains, and yet inside of an hour you have exchanged the glare and swelter of the city for wooded hills, and shady forest paths, and soft cool airs, and the music of birds, and the repose and the peace of paradise.

And there are plenty of other health resorts at your service and convenient to get at from Vienna; charming places, all of them; Vienna sits in the centre of a beautiful world of mountains with now and then a lake and forests; in fact, no other city is so fortunately situated.

There is an abundance of health resorts, as I have said. Among them this place--Hochberghaus. It stands solitary on the top of a densely wooded mountain, and is a building of great size. It is called the Appetite Anstallt, and people who have lost their appetites come here to get them restored. When I arrived I was taken by Professor Haimberger to his consulting-room and questioned:

'It is six o'clock. When did you eat last?'

'At noon.'

'What did you eat?'

'Next to nothing.'

'What was on the table?'

'The usual things.'

'Chops, chickens, vegetables, and so on?'

'Yes; but don't mention them--I can't bear it.'

'Are you tired of them?'

'Oh, utterly. I wish I might never hear of them again.'

'The mere sight of food offends you, does it?'

'More, it revolts me.'

The doctor considered awhile, then got out a long menu and ran his eye slowly down it.

'I think,' said he, 'that what you need to eat is--but here, choose for yourself.'

I glanced at the list, and my stomach threw a hand-spring. Of all the barbarous lay-outs that were ever contrived, this was the most atrocious. At the top stood 'tough, underdone, overdue tripe, garnished with garlic;' half-way down the bill stood 'young cat; old cat; scrambled cat;' at the bottom stood 'sailor-boots, softened with tallow--served raw.' The wide intervals of the bill were packed with dishes calculated to gag a cannibal. I said:

'Doctor, it is not fair to joke over so serious a case as mine. I came here to get an appetite, not to throw away the remnant that's left.'

He said gravely: 'I am not joking; why should I joke?'

'But I can't eat these horrors.'

'Why not?'

He said it with a naivete that was admirable, whether it was real or assumed.

'Why not? Because--why, doctor, for months I have seldom been able to endure anything more substantial than omelettes and custards. These unspeakable dishes of yours--'

'Oh, you will come to like them. They are very good. And you must eat them. It is a rule of the place, and is strict. I cannot permit any departure from it.'

I said smiling: 'Well, then, doctor, you will have to permit the departure of the patient. I am going.'

He looked hurt, and said in a way which changed the aspect of things:

'I am sure you would not do me that injustice. I accepted you in good faith--you will not shame that confidence. This appetite-cure is my whole living. If you should go forth from it with the sort of appetite which you now have, it could become known, and you can see, yourself, that people would say my cure failed in your case and hence can fail in other cases. You will not go; you will not do me this hurt.'

I apologised and said I would stay.

'That is right. I was sure you would not go; it would take the food from my family's mouths.'

'Would they mind that? Do they eat these fiendish things?'

'They? My family?' His eyes were full of gentle wonder. 'Of course not.'

'Oh, they don't! Do you?'

'Certainly not.'

'I see. It's another case of a physician who doesn't take his own medicine.'

'I don't need it. It is six hours since you lunched. Will you have supper now--or later?'

'I am not hungry, but now is as good a time as any, and I would like to be done with it and have it off my mind. It is about my usual time, and regularity is commanded by all the authorities. Yes, I will try to nibble a little now--I wish a light horsewhipping would answer instead.'

The professor handed me that odious menu.

'Choose--or will you have it later?'

'Oh, dear me, show me to my room; I forgot your hard rule.'

'Wait just a moment before you finally decide. There is another rule. If you choose now, the order will be filled at once; but if you wait, you will have to await my pleasure. You cannot get a dish from that entire bill until I consent.'

'All right. Show me to my room, and send the cook to bed; there is not going to be any hurry.'

The professor took me up one flight of stairs and showed me into a most inviting and comfortable apartment consisting of parlour, bedchamber, and bathroom.

The front windows looked out over a far-reaching spread of green glades and valleys, and tumbled hills clothed with forests--a noble solitude unvexed by the fussy world. In the parlour were many shelves filled with books. The professor said he would now leave me to myself; and added:

'Smoke and read as much as you please, drink all the water you like. When you get hungry, ring and give your order, and I will decide whether it shall be filled or not. Yours is a stubborn, bad case, and I think the first fourteen dishes in the bill are each and all too delicate for its needs. I ask you as a favour to restrain yourself and not call for them.'

'Restrain myself, is it? Give yourself no uneasiness. You are going to save money by me. The idea of coaxing a sick man's appetite back with this buzzard-fare is clear insanity.'

I said it with bitterness, for I felt outraged by this calm, cold talk over these heartless new engines of assassination. The doctor looked grieved, but not offended. He laid the bill of fare of the commode at my bed's head, 'so that it would be handy,' and said:

'Yours is not the worst case I have encountered, by any means; still it is a bad one and requires robust treatment; therefore I shall be gratified if you will restrain yourself and skip down to No. 15 and begin with that.'

Then he left me and I began to undress, for I was dog-tired and very sleepy. I slept fifteen hours and woke up finely refreshed at ten the next morning. Vienna coffee! It was the first thing I thought of--that unapproachable luxury--that sumptuous coffee-house coffee, compared with which all other European coffee and all American hotel coffee is mere fluid poverty. I rang, and ordered it; also Vienna bread, that delicious invention. The servant spoke through the wicket in the door and said-- but you know what he said. He referred me to the bill of fare. I allowed him to go--I had no further use for him.

After the bath I dressed and started for a walk, and got as far as the door. It was locked on the outside. I rang, and the servant came and explained that it was another rule. The seclusion of the patient was required until after the first meal. I had not been particularly anxious to get out before; but it was different now. Being locked in makes a person wishful to get out. I soon began to find it difficult to put in the time. At two o'clock I had been twenty-six hours without food. I had been growing hungry for some time; I recognised that I was not only hungry now, but hungry with a strong adjective in front of it. Yet I was not hungry enough to face the bill of fare.

I must put in the time somehow. I would read and smoke. I did it; hour by hour. The books were all of one breed--shipwrecks; people lost in deserts; people shut up in caved-in mines; people starving in besieged cities. I read about all the revolting dishes that ever famishing men had stayed their hunger with. During the first hours these things nauseated me: hours followed in which they did not so affect me; still other hours followed in which I found myself smacking my lips over some tolerably infernal messes. When I had been without food forty-five hours I ran eagerly to the bell and ordered the second dish in the bill, which was a sort of dumplings containing a compost made of caviar and tar.

It was refused me. During the next fifteen hours I visited the bell every now and then and ordered a dish that was further down the list. Always a refusal. But I was conquering prejudice after prejudice, right along; I was making sure progress; I was creeping up on No. 15 with deadly certainty, and my heart beat faster and faster, my hopes rose higher and higher.

At last when food had not passed my lips for sixty hours, victory was mine, and I ordered No. 15:

'Soft-boiled spring chicken--in the egg; six dozen, hot and fragrant!'

In fifteen minutes it was there; and the doctor along with it, rubbing his hands with joy. He said with great excitement:

'It's a cure, it's a cure! I knew I could do it. Dear sir, my grand system never failed--never. You've got your appetite back--you know you have; say it and make me happy.'

'Bring on your carrion--I can eat anything in the bill!'

'Oh, this is noble, this is splendid--but I knew I could do it, the system never fails. How are the birds?'

'Never was anything so delicious in the world; and yet as a rule I don't care for game. But don't interrupt me, don't--I can't spare my mouth, I really can't.'

Then the doctor said:

'The cure is perfect. There is no more doubt nor danger. Let the poultry alone; I can trust you with a beefsteak, now.'

The beefsteak came--as much as a basketful of it--with potatoes, and Vienna bread and coffee; and I ate a meal then that was worth all the costly preparation I had made for it. And dripped tears of gratitude into the gravy all the time--gratitude to the doctor for putting a little plain common-sense into me when I had been empty of it so many, many years.


Thirty years ago Haimberger went off on a long voyage in a sailing-ship. There were fifteen passengers on board. The table-fare was of the regulation pattern of the day: At 7 in the morning, a cup of bad coffee in bed; at 9, breakfast: bad coffee, with condensed milk; soggy rolls, crackers, salt fish; at 1 P.M., luncheon: cold tongue, cold ham, cold corned beef, soggy cold rolls, crackers; 5 P.M., dinner: thick pea soup, salt fish, hot corned beef and sour kraut, boiled pork and beans, pudding; 9 till 11 P.M., supper: tea, with condensed milk, cold tongue, cold ham, pickles, sea-biscuit, pickled oysters, pickled pigs' feet, grilled bones, golden buck.

At the end of the first week eating had ceased, nibbling had taken its place. The passengers came to the table, but it was partly to put in the time, and partly because the wisdom of the ages commanded them to be regular in their meals. They were tired of the coarse and monotonous fare, and took no interest in it, had no appetite for it. All day and every day they roamed the ship half hungry, plagued by their gnawing stomachs, moody, untalkative, miserable. Among them were three confirmed dyspeptics. These became shadows in the course of three weeks. There was also a bed-ridden invalid; he lived on boiled rice; he could not look at the regular dishes.

Now came shipwrecks and life in open boats, with the usual paucity of food. Provisions ran lower and lower. The appetites improved, then. When nothing was left but raw ham and the ration of that was down to two ounces a day per person, the appetites were perfect. At the end of fifteen days the dyspeptics, the invalid, and the most delicate ladies in the party were chewing sailor-boots in ecstasy, and only complaining because the supply of them was limited. Yet these were the same people who couldn't endure the ship's tedious corned beef and sour kraut and other crudities. They were rescued by an English vessel. Within ten days the whole fifteen were in as good condition as they had been when the shipwreck occurred.

'They had suffered no damage by their adventure,' said the professor.

'Do you note that?'


'Do you note it well?'

'Yes--I think I do.'

'But you don't. You hesitate. You don't rise to the importance of it. I will say it again--with emphasis--not one of them suffered any damage.'

'Now I begin to see. Yes, it was indeed remarkable.'

'Nothing of the kind. It was perfectly natural. There was no reason why they should suffer damage. They were undergoing Nature's Appetite-Cure, the best and wisest in the world.'

'Is that where you got your idea?'

'That is where I got it.'

'It taught those people a valuable lesson.'

'What makes you think that?'

'Why shouldn't I? You seem to think it taught you one.'

'That is nothing to the point. I am not a fool.'

'I see. Were they fools?'

'They were human beings.'

'Is it the same thing?'

'Why do you ask? You know it yourself. As regards his health--and the rest of the things--the average man is what his environment and his superstitions have made him; and their function is to make him an ass. He can't add up three or four new circumstances together and perceive what they mean; it is beyond him. He is not capable of observing for himself; he has to get everything at second-hand. If what are miscalled the lower animals were as silly as man is, they would all perish from the earth in a year.'

'Those passengers learned no lesson, then?'

'Not a sign of it. They went to their regular meals in the English ship, and pretty soon they were nibbling again--nibbling, appetiteless, disgusted with the food, moody, miserable, half hungry, their outraged stomachs cursing and swearing and whining and supplicating all day long. And in vain, for they were the stomachs of fools.'

'Then, as I understand it, your scheme is--'

'Quite simple. Don't eat until you are hungry. If the food fails to taste good, fails to satisfy you, rejoice you, comfort you, don't eat again until you are very hungry. Then it will rejoice you--and do you good, too.'

'And I am to observe no regularity, as to hours?'

'When you are conquering a bad appetite--no. After it is conquered, regularity is no harm, so long as the appetite remains good. As soon as the appetite wavers, apply the corrective again--which is starvation, long or short according to the needs of the case.'

'The best diet, I suppose--I mean the wholesomest--'

'All diets are wholesome. Some are wholesomer than others, but all the ordinary diets are wholesome enough for the people who use them. Whether the food be fine or coarse it will taste good and it will nourish if a watch be kept upon the appetite and a little starvation introduced every time it weakens. Nansen was used to fine fare, but when his meals were restricted to bear-meat months at a time he suffered no damage and no discomfort, because his appetite was kept at par through the difficulty of getting his bear-meat regularly.'

'But doctors arrange carefully considered and delicate diets for invalids.'

'They can't help it. The invalid is full of inherited superstitions and won't starve himself. He believes it would certainly kill him.'

'It would weaken him, wouldn't it?'

'Nothing to hurt. Look at the invalids in our shipwreck. They lived fifteen days on pinches of raw ham, a suck at sailor-boots, and general starvation. It weakened them, but it didn't hurt them. It put them in fine shape to eat heartily of hearty food and build themselves up to a condition of robust health. But they did not know enough to profit by that; they lost their opportunity; they remained invalids; it served them right. Do you know the trick that the health-resort doctors play?'

'What is it?'

'My system disguised--covert starvation. Grape-cure, bath-cure, mud- cure--it is all the same. The grape and the bath and the mud make a show and do a trifle of the work--the real work is done by the surreptitious starvation. The patient accustomed to four meals and late hours--at both ends of the day--now consider what he has to do at a health resort. He gets up at 6 in the morning. Eats one egg. Tramps up and down a promenade two hours with the other fools. Eats a butterfly. Slowly drinks a glass of filtered sewage that smells like a buzzard's breath. Promenades another two hours, but alone; if you speak to him he says anxiously, "My water!--I am walking off my water!--please don't interrupt," and goes stumping along again. Eats a candied roseleaf. Lies at rest in the silence and solitude of his room for hours; mustn't read, mustn't smoke. The doctor comes and feels of his heart, now, and his pulse, and thumps his breast and his back and his stomach, and listens for results through a penny flageolet; then orders the man's bath--half a degree, Reaumur, cooler than yesterday. After the bath another egg. A glass of sewage at three or four in the afternoon, and promenade solemnly with the other freaks. Dinner at 6--half a doughnut and a cup of tea. Walk again. Half-past 8, supper--more butterfly; at 9, to bed. Six weeks of this regime--think of it. It starves a man out and puts him in splendid condition. It would have the same effect in London, New York, Jericho--anywhere.'

'How long does it take to put a person in condition here?'

'It ought to take but a day or two; but in fact it takes from one to six weeks, according to the character and mentality of the patient.'

'How is that?'

'Do you see that crowd of women playing football, and boxing, and jumping fences yonder? They have been here six or seven weeks. They were spectral poor weaklings when they came. They were accustomed to nibbling at dainties and delicacies at set hours four times a day, and they had no appetite for anything. I questioned them, and then locked them into their rooms--the frailest ones to starve nine or ten hours, the others twelve or fifteen. Before long they began to beg; and indeed they suffered a good deal. They complained of nausea, headache, and so on. It was good to see them eat when the time was up. They could not remember when the devouring of a meal had afforded them such rapture-- that was their word. Now, then, that ought to have ended their cure, but it didn't. They were free to go to any meals in the house, and they chose their accustomed four. Within a day or two I had to interfere. Their appetites were weakening. I made them knock out a meal. That set them up again. Then they resumed the four. I begged them to learn to knock out a meal themselves, without waiting for me. Up to a fortnight ago they couldn't; they really hadn't manhood enough; but they were gaining it, and now I think they are safe. They drop out a meal every now and then of their own accord. They are in fine condition now, and they might safely go home, I think, but their confidence is not quite perfect yet, so they are waiting awhile.'

'Other cases are different?'

'Oh yes. Sometimes a man learns the whole trick in a week. Learns to regulate his appetite and keep it in perfect order. Learns to drop out a meal with frequency and not mind it.'

'But why drop the entire meal out? Why not a part of it?'

'It's a poor device, and inadequate. If the stomach doesn't call vigorously--with a shout, as you may say--it is better not to pester it but just give it a real rest. Some people can eat more meals than others, and still thrive. There are all sorts of people, and all sorts of appetites. I will show you a man presently who was accustomed to nibble at eight meals a day. It was beyond the proper gait of his appetite by two. I have got him down to six a day, now, and he is all right, and enjoys life. How many meals to you affect per day?'

'Formerly--for twenty-two years--a meal and a half; during the past two years, two and a half: coffee and a roll at 9, luncheon at 1, dinner at 7.30 or 8.'

'Formerly a meal and a half--that is, coffee and a roll at 9, dinner in the evening, nothing between--is that it?


'Why did you add a meal?'

'It was the family's idea. They were uneasy. They thought I was killing myself.'

'You found a meal and a half per day enough, all through the twenty-two years?'


'Your present poor condition is due to the extra meal. Drop it out. You are trying to eat oftener than your stomach demands. You don't gain, you lose. You eat less food now, in a day, on two and a half meals, than you formerly ate on one and a half.'

'True--a good deal less; for in those olds days my dinner was a very sizeable thing.'

'Put yourself on a single meal a day, now--dinner--for a few days, till you secure a good, sound, regular, trustworthy appetite, then take to your one and a half permanently, and don't listen to the family any more. When you have any ordinary ailment, particularly of a feverish sort, eat nothing at all during twenty-four hours. That will cure it. It will cure the stubbornest cold in the head, too. No cold in the head can survive twenty-four hours' unmodified starvation.'

I know it. I have proved it many a time.