Between March 22 and 23, 1997, 37 members of the Heaven's Gate religious movement committed suicide by eating their choice of applesauce or pudding laced with phenobarbital, then washing their meals down with a handle of vodka. The "Away Team,"as declared by the hand-stitched patches on their matching tracksuits, also wrapped plastic bags around their heads to induce asphyxiation. A few weeks later, another two members followed suit, leaving their physical bodies behind to be transported aboard the alien spacecraft trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet, where their friends ostensibly awaited them. Had they not departed Earth, the Heaven's Gate believers would have probably lived long, healthy lives, thanks in part to the fact that they ate a hell of a lot better than you or me.
Heaven's Gate members are, in essence, the anti-foodies—their dishes are meant to help them sustain themselves, not to be enjoyed.
Actually, a few of them still do. An indeterminate number of followers—some reports say two, others more—stayed behind on Earth as the curators of Heaven's Gate founders Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles' teachings. These adherents claim to have been with the group since meeting Applewhite and Nettles—also known as Do and Ti—in 1975, stating that the connection between them and their teachers was almost instantaneous. They are fairly communicative online, despite their adamant wish to remain anonymous. But talking with them isn't like a normal correspondence. Questions are answered matter-of-factly in numbered lists, and they ignore any inquiries they don't like. It's a bit like speaking to a slightly off-putting version of Siri.
Which, to them, is probably a compliment. Heaven's Gate members worked hard to strip themselves of any human shortcomings—pesky things like emotions, desires, and sexual impulses. Applewhite and a few of his more zealous male initiates even went so far as to travel to Mexico pre-departure for some medically dubious castrations, but the suppression of these baser instincts still takes work.
"As far as emotional human trappings, it was a difficult experience to shed all those things that are hard-wired into the flesh and blood and also nurtured by human methods of raising children," the remaining members tell me in an email. (All quotes sic throughout.) "It takes a constant alert mind to not allow automatic reactions and habits to begin to play out."
A constantly alert mind requires energy, but this energy can't come from just any diet. Think utilitarian, a means to an end. Heaven's Gate members are, in essence, the anti-foodies—their dishes are meant to help them sustain themselves, not to be enjoyed. When I ask them what a typical day's meals resemble, the answers are, somewhat unsurprisingly, bland and practical.
"You would have a grain cereal in the morning, followed by a low-fat sandwich for lunch (no fried foods such as french fries). Dinner would consist of a carefully prepared protein with vegetables," they tell me.
At one point in our multiple conversations, I requested the recipes they most frequently use in the kitchen. In response, they simply sent an example of a standard Heaven's Gate devotee menu:
MONDAY Breakfast: Hot cereal w/raisins, Bread Mid-Day: Salad, Swedish Meatballs, Mashed Potatoes, Corn, Rolls, Iced Tea Evening: Meat Sandwich—Pickle, Chips, Drink
"You wouldn't have water all the time but one would not drink your calories with sodas and sugary drinks that stress the bodies organs into the battles of near diabetes-like issues humans face each day," they add.
Their meals come from decades of picking and choosing what works best, separating the functional from the superfluous, but that doesn't mean there's a mystical Heaven's Gate food pyramid. Adherents attempted a variety of diets.
"We tried every diet out there to see its affect on the body…From fruitarian, to wheatgrass, to low cooked grains to juice only consumption," they write. They later explained that, if they had to choose, wheatgrass was the most difficult to maintain.
They also suggested I attempt "a juice only diet for weeks at a time and…strip down the body's childish and self center ways of looking at food, nutrition and what a brain feel it needs to make it feel 'satisfied'. It is a real learning experience."
Their final conclusions are a bit more palatable:
"…[B]ut in the end, moderation in small amounts of meat, chicken and lots of vegetables and grains was the key. It provided a balance that could supply us with the energy to work at our regular jobs while [supplying] the mental alertness to keep our focus and direction."
The remnants of Heaven's Gate have let go of everything they believe made them slaves to the human condition. It's the most ancient form of human asceticism, augmented by cyberspace and juice cleanses.
They never elaborated on these "regular jobs," though they likely relate to some form of web design, given this was the main source of the cult's income up until the other members' departure. Regardless of their current chosen professions, interactions with the general population have become increasingly difficult over the years. Work long enough at trimming the fat off your humanity, and the rest of humanity eventually begins to look less appealing.
"Human behavior has a tendency to always play to a lower common denominator. You have to learn how to step around it without hurting the feelings of those around you," they explain. "The human body is a mass of genetic and nurtured habits that need to be examined."
They believe themselves to be scientists trapped in lab rats' bodies, observing their fellow lab rats. The remnants of Heaven's Gate have let go of everything they believe made them slaves to the human condition, transforming themselves into outsiders. It's the most ancient form of human asceticism, augmented by cyberspace and juice cleanses.
But if Ti, Do, and the rest of their fellow students have been transported to The Evolutionary Level Above Human—TELAH, according to the still active Heaven's Gate website—why don't they just join them? What's the point of eating healthily? Hell, what's the point of eating at all, if breaking free of humanity's chains is the final goal?
"It's not to live as long as possible. Only to do it with health. We will perform this task until we die."
The surviving few plan to continue operating until the engines stop working, until their physical programming corrupts beyond repair. They've become what they set out to be—automated curators of vitally important data, powered by the most basic, effective fuels and nothing else. Sitting alone or in very small groups, eating meat sandwiches, it all still sounds a bit lonely.
"4. No, we are not lonely. We can't all eat together because we are all over the country."