The memory hits me like hunger: sudden pangs, gnawing edgewise. First it’s just a headline and the torn edge of a story. A nutrition professor. His gruesome murder. Fast food strewn all around the apartment. Junk food shoved down his throat. Food smeared on his body. The professor choking, asphyxiating, on junk food. Struggling to free himself of it, but drowning in it.
I’m visiting Gainesville, Florida, where I attended college thirty years earlier and where my mother now lives. On my way in, I drive by the Wendy’s that was on the outskirts of town in the early 1980s but is now just another bead on a string of fast food restaurants extending far beyond city limits. That’s when the smell of charred, grease-coated French fries fills my mouth and nose even though the car windows are closed, the scent-and-taste memory triggering not physical hunger but a more nebulous need to unwrap the Junk Food Professor story packed up in my unconscious.
It was the start of fall semester, 1982, my sophomore year at the University of Florida. The Equal Rights amendment had just failed to be ratified, Ronald Reagan was eight months into his presidency, and Anita Bryant served orange juice flavored homophobia across Florida. At nineteen years old, I’d just moved into the honors dorm, and was about to struggle through organic chemistry, my major. I’d study the molecular structure of cholesterol and the process of hydrogenation that turned liquid oils into saturated fats along with partially saturated cis- and trans-fat by-products. On the personal front, I’d discover Pink Floyd and the Talking Heads as alternatives to Michael Jackson and Madonna, and I’d hear the first rumors about a new “gay cancer.” Later in the eighties, after I’d left, the “Gainesville Ripper” would rape and murder five female students matching my description—petite Caucasian brunettes—before being caught, and the University of Florida would be ranked a top party school by Playboy magazine. But in 1982, it was not rape, murder, drugs, or alcohol that posed the greatest threat to me. It was food.
1982 is as good a year as any to mark the time when food got truly scary, not only for me but for U.S. culture more generally. That year, the FDA published its first “red book” on the safety of color and other additives in food, signaling a new era in which food was now synthesized in an industrial chemical plant. “It was in the 1980s,” Michael Pollan has written, “that food began disappearing from the American supermarket,” to be replaced by processed edible “foodstuffs.” Known as “the decade of consumption,” the 1980s was the decade in which sugars in soft drinks were replaced by high fructose corn syrup and in which aspartame was first marketed, quickly colonizing diet soft drinks. Supermarket food was cheaper than ever, and junk food junkier, more processed, and sweeter and richer than anything nature on its own could provide. New packaging technologies and preservatives allowed fast, “one-hander” foods to migrate beyond supermarkets into drug stores, gas stations, and vending machines. The new microwaves could create instant meals around the clock. Convenience foods were suddenly everywhere. Foodstuffs became unnaturally ubiquitous and, as the ad went, “magically delicious.”
Food advertisements, too, proliferated, along with fad diets, Jazzercise franchises, and ever- skinnier models. The messages invaded. Have it your way. You deserve a break today. It’s finger lickin’ good. Bet you can’t eat just one. Everything around me said “Eat!” Everything around me said “Don’t eat!”
My memory jolt about the Junk Food Professor’s murder recurs at a Gainesville Starbucks, where I’m rewarding my caffeine addiction amid students snacking before laptop screens. Coffee is my fast food now. Back when I was a student, there were no Starbucks cafes, no laptops or even computers. Instead, I dawdled in fast food restaurants, huddled over thick books while trying to make my salad last. Three decades later, dawdling over a venti dark roast, I take out my own iPhone and google. I quickly realize that I’ve misremembered the incident in significant ways.
Howard Appledorf really was a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Florida. That much I’d remembered correctly. The rest of the memory spent too long submerged in my unconscious, creating its own slant truths.
According to newspaper reports in the Gainesville Sun and elsewhere, Appledorf met at least one of his killers in June of 1982, when he attended a soft drink convention in San Francisco. Appledorf was known as an apologist for the fast food industry—hence his moniker “the Junk Food Professor”—and he allegedly received financial support for his work from the National Soft Drinks Association. More diplomatically, the Special Collections library of the University of Florida housing his papers says of him that, as “[a] national spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists, he argued that ‘fast foods’ are of high nutritional value.” In professional papers as well as on national television talk shows, such as the John Davidson Show, Appledorf defended the nutritional value of franchise foods. He analyzed such meals as a fried chicken dinner and a burger-shake-and-fries, and found their nutritional value to be at least “adequate,” sometimes “pretty good.” He himself did not like the term “junk food”; he wrote in a 1980 paper entitled “Marketing Nutrition in Fast Food Operations” that fast foods suffer from “an image problem” and that it “is disturbing to see fast food referred to as ‘junk food,’ particularly in view of the wide variety of nutrients found in foods sold in fast food restaurants.” That same paper condemns the “food activists” and “food purists” for their “politicalization of nutrition,” and implies that eating healthily is ultimately a matter of individual responsibility.
While overt about his controversial, much-maligned support of fast food, Appledorf was in the closet about his sexuality, and seems to have led a double life. In an era just before AIDS outed gay men on a mass scale, forcing a visibility to gay identity undreamed of before, it was far more disgraceful to be homosexual than to be a scientist-shill for the fast food industry. But out-of-town conventions seemed to offer Appledorf opportunities to explore his other life. On his San Francisco trip, Appledorf , who was then 41 or 42 years old, met Paul Bown, 21, on Polk Street, and the two went to Appledorf’s room in the Hilton. There they split a $75 bottle of champagne, and, according to Chery McCall of People magazine, Appledorf “reportedly contracted for sexual services for two nights for $200. Later, he bought clothes for Bown and gave him another $200 before returning to Florida.”
But what happened in San Francisco followed Appledorf back to Florida. In the third week of August, Paul Bown, along with his friends and fellow prostitutes Paul Everson, 19, and Shane Kennedy, 15, showed up at Appledorf’s condo in Gainesville. During their stay with him, Paul Everson stole a check from Appledorf’s checkbook and forged it for $900. Appledorf first wanted to press charges, but when Everson contacted a local television reporter and claimed that Appledorf had molested him in exchange for the money, Appledorf dropped the charges under the condition that the three men leave town.
That may well have been the same week that, on campus across town, I entered a bathroom in the Reitz student union building. It was the week before classes started: rush week. Just as I slipped into a stall some sorority girls entered the bathroom. One was talking to another about purging. I’d heard about this new illness called bulimia in magazines, but didn’t know anyone who did it. “Everybody does it,” the sorority sister said.
I knew about anorexia, of course, and had already dabbled in it. In high school, during the Bo Derek era, I’d eaten only boiled chicken and vegetables to keep myself under 100 pounds. Over the summers I’d restrict my caloric intake to 800 a day. But such severe energy restriction was hard to keep up in college. While fraternities posted signs saying “No Fat Cows,” I was, according to my hallmates, “porking out.” I could now feel my thighs brush against each other as I walked. I tried a fellow chemistry major’s diet of freeze-dried coffee and nothing else, but couldn’t handle the jitters on top of the hunger. Special K ads asked, “Can you pinch an inch?” For the first time, I could.
“You just stick your finger down your throat,” the sister said. “It’s hard at first, but it gets easier the more you do it.”
On September 2nd, Appledorf left for New York to lecture on nutritional trends at the Good Housekeeping Institute. That’s when the three itinerant young men returned to his home, broke in the back door, and camped out. They pawned some of his gold rings, threw food and clothes around, ate his food and drank his alcohol in front of the television. Before his expected return on Tuesday, September 7th, they bought three Subway sandwiches.
Perhaps that was the same morning when, eating my breakfast of Special K in the student cafeteria, I looked up from my newspaper to see a girl from last year’s freshman dorm joining me. I remembered her as a party girl. “I should be eating like you, she said, “instead of this egg muffin. I’m getting so fat. I can’t stand it. Look at how many inches I can pinch. I swear. I wish I could make myself vomit. That would solve everything. But I just can’t do it. I try. I stick my fingers all the way down my throat, but I don’t have any gag reflex left.” She spoke with such infectious longing, as if bulimia would make her life complete. She assumed I would understand. I did. She sighed and added, “Sometimes when I drink I can make myself vomit. So when I’m drunk I get to eat anything I want.”
That monologue has remained with me so clearly all these years that what I’ve recreated above has got to be an extremely close approximation, if not verbatim. But even more than the words, I remember the longing, and its flip side of despair.
On September 7th, Appledorf returned home. Upon entering, he saw the three men and the state of his house. An argument ensued. At one point Appledorf tried to leave but was blocked. That’s when Paul Everson struck the professor’s head with a frying pan. Appledorf sank to the floor.
At least two of the three men bound Appledorf’s hands, feet, and knees with his own ties and belts. They gagged him, and then put a sheet over his head and a bag over the sheet. Everson bounced on Appledorf’s chest until “the air went out of him.” Bown continued to strike Appledorf’s head with the frying pan until the handle fell off. When one of them put a cigarette out on the exposed skin of the professor’s stomach, there was no response. That was when they realized they’d killed him. An autopsy would determine that Appledorf suffocated. He was not killed with junk food, as I’d remembered.
In dispute is the level of involvement of the young Shane Kennedy. Some reports have him either in the bedroom or outside through much of this, sick to his stomach and vomiting.
One day early that semester, around the time of Appledorf’s murder, I passed through the student union, hungry as usual, and the smell of French fries, saturated in grease and lava-hot, overtook me. I bought a carton from the cafeteria and ate. One after another, until they were all gone. Then I went to the bathroom, the same one where I’d heard the sorority sisters talking, and leaned over the toilet. I didn’t even decide, I just did it. It was easy. I didn’t even need to use a finger. Just tightening my abdominal muscles did the trick. And then I was ethereally empty.
After that, food beckoned, always. Everything forbidden was now possible. Food appeared everywhere. It was no longer connected to its natural role of nourishment and became a drug. The cravings went wild. A nutrition professor might have been able to tell me that with each purge, the blood sugar level drops precipitously while electrolytes—which help regulate heartbeat and neurological function—get way out of balance. Such nutritional crashes can mimic a drug addition.
Eternally hypoglycemic, I’d sit in class thinking about my next meal. I was either stuffed or starving. I couldn’t get off the Ferris wheel. In lecture hall one day, light-headed with hunger and hypoglycemia. I felt my fingers tingle, then curl into claws. I didn’t know how I’d manage the lock on my bike when I couldn’t move my hands. Was I too faint to walk home? Could I make it back to the dorm? Or would I have to stop at the vending machine and get those crackers with the synthetic cheese or peanut butter. But at 300+ calories, along with the neurological panic and elevated heart rate such a caloric jolt would instigate, I’d have to start the cycle all over again.
And again and again. When the Appledorf murder happened, I was the one choking on the food shoved down my throat.
After they realized Appledorf was dead, the three men staged the crime scene to look like a ritualistic murder. They arranged four plates in the room, three with the remains of their Subway sandwiches and one empty of food but bearing a note saying, “HOWARD, I wish you could join us.” Inspired by the movie Times Square, they wrote “HOWARD, we love you sincerely. The slez sisters” on the wall, and, inspired by The Shining, added “murder” and “redrum” in red ink. Everson scrawled an insane, unsigned confession on a steno pad. Then they fled north in Appledorf’s Pontiac Firebird.
Appledorf’s three killers were caught fairly quickly, thanks in part to the cooperation of New York’s gay community, and prosecuted for their crimes.
In retrospect, Appledorf’s story, despite its role in my memory, is more about the era of the closet just before AIDS. I see it now as an illustration of the harm that the closet can do, and, relatedly, an uncanny preview of the rapid movement of the AIDS virus from San Francisco to New York with many stops in between. Food in this drama was merely a decoy, which the killers used to both reveal and conceal their real pathologies. In the next decade, psychologists studying eating disorders would similarly say that these pathologies, too, aren’t really about food per se; food is the correlate at hand, in this culture of abundance and consumption, through which to ineffectually express/displace harder-to-articulate problems. Cultural critics would argue that eating disorders express not simply individual anxieties but societal conflicts. They are a kind of “compromise formation” through which young women negotiate their culture’s impossibly mixed messages about gender and consumption.
At any rate, my memory of Appledorf’s murder fell for the murderers’ decoy that the story was about food, when it was really about things like the closet, class, power, and complicated systemic problems I didn’t know how to recognize, much less analyze. My memory metamorphosed the Junk Food Professor’s story into my own.
If my deceptive psyche projected my own crisis onto the Junk Food Murder story as it unfolded, and allowed my own unconscious needs to shape its narrative, then it performed a well-recognized displacement. Sometimes memory works like a dream. I would learn in a literature class that semester that, according to Freud anyway, the psyche reveals by concealing, offering truths through myth and metaphor, containing unacceptable desires in those bright, diverting wrappers. Like so many dreams, my false memory—or nightmare—may be truer than the true version, at least for me.
I was lucky. I got chest pains, and rushed to the clinic fearing a heart attack. The pains turned out to be only a chest wall muscle spasm—probably developed from the strain of vomiting—but when the doctor saw my potassium level results she read me the riot act and scared me straight. I immediately gained ten pounds and settled into a more conventional self-disgust.
Still, I’ve been fighting dual impulses—fear of fat and longing for calorie-rich processed food—ever since. Even now, here in this Starbucks, a middle-aged woman, I sit with my coffee, longing for and loathing the turkey panini, whose warm, greasy smell overtakes the scent of charred coffee beans. I’m as consumed by this savory sandwich I’ll never eat as by my return-of-the-repressed memories.
I say I’m lucky because I could have died from my disorder. Up to 30% of bulimarexics do. Another third recover. The final third linger on, bound and gagged by unnatural appetites. It’s not merely the extreme eating disorders (like bulimia and anorexia) that make up the death tolls of our junk food era, though, but also diseases resulting from what even Howard Appledorf called “the malnutrition of affluence”: the increased Type II diabetes incidence, the heart and circulatory conditions, the cancers correlated with dietary and body fat, and other diet-and-lifestyle-related illnesses. It’s these low-level but widespread food and consumption disorders that ultimately kill us culture-wide.
So maybe the story is one of Junk Food Killers after all. Ever since 1982 the junk food industry has taken our collective national metabolism captive to the point where we’re choking on overconsumption. As a culture, we now need tracts like Michael Pollan’s bestseller Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual to re-teach us how to eat in the most basic of ways. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” is his most famous, overall guideline, but he also offers sixty-four additional common-sense guidelines, such as “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” Perhaps it was not 1984’s Big Brother but the food industry that loomed over us and invaded our most intimate spaces, inducing us to pinch our inches and discipline our bodies even as our collective food desires got more and more out of control. 1982, the year the Junk Food Professor was murdered, may well be the year we began to develop the national eating disorder we’ve been struggling with ever since.
Art by Matt Monk
D A Thompson