E ric Triffin is such a suit.
Today he’s dressed like a pea pod, and he’s carrying a few actual snap peas for good measure. Peel away the pea getup and you’ll find a still-eccentric look: bright Hawaiian shirt and tie-dyed socks, with various accessories including a peace sign hanging from his neck.
Triffin tends to stand out. Engaging passersby at events around town and uninhibitedly grooving on his own when there’s live music in the air, Triffin—also known as “Carrotman” around New Haven (he’s got a carrot suit too)—spreads a message of healthy eating. The activity also seems to be food for his soul; Triffin wears a vegetable costume so naturally and happily that you can easily forget he’s wearing it at all.
With a full white beard and an easy smile, he’s telling me all about the various things he’s done in his quest to “infect people with health.” This afternoon, the infection is spreading via smoothie samples, which he’s handing out at natural market Edge of the Woods. “All you need is five dollars, five ingredients and five minutes,” he tells shoppers as he hands them a small plastic cup of the light pink smoothie he’s crafted on site in his Vitamix blender. Combining cashews, strawberries, cantaloupe, bananas, grapes and some water, his concoction is refreshing and fruity—and notably free of both dairy and added sweeteners.
Observing this phenomenon, and having no broader contextual knowledge, you might think Triffin’s simply a remarkably enthusiastic smoothie-sampler. But you’d be vastly underestimating him and his breadth of experience and knowledge.
Formerly the West Haven Public Health Director, holding the post for 24 years, Triffin, who got his Masters in Public Health from Yale in 1984, has headed important health campaigns, written major grants, urged healthier food in school cafeterias and penned health-directed opinion pieces in local newspapers. He was recently included in Yale Public Health magazine as a featured alumnus. Since retiring in 2010, he remains a staunch advocate of healthy habits for the masses, only now he carries out his goals in as many creative and unorthodox ways as possible.
He does still teach within the box—in a classroom, that is—as a professor of Public Health conducting wellness classes at Southern Connecticut University, but his job there goes beyond the norm, too. “I’m a non-conformist teacher,” Triffin says. “Freeing the mind is part of my health class.”
One can easily imagine his easygoing yet impassioned teaching style. My talk with him ranges on topics from the researched benefits of a vegetarian diet (Triffin says he’s been one for almost his entire lifetime) to his love of dance as a means to lift the spirits and get some good exercise; indeed, that’s how many locals might know the health crusader, who’s often found dancing in an improvised style on the New Haven Green when there’s a public concert. He visits as many International Festival of Arts and Ideas shows as he can.
“When my feet tap the ground, there are 14 billion feet touching the same ground,” he says, remarking upon the more spiritual aspects he brings to his dance. In the next breath, he’ll mention a completely practical benefit, such as a study that indicated regular dancing might aid in fighting Alzheimer’s.
His nutritional advice is similarly replete with common and uncommon sense. He talks about “empowering people” to break free from the temptation of processed foods, thus taking back power from the corporations who make the stuff. “We should cook whole, plant-based foods. Excuse me, what’s not to like about that?” he says, shrugging.
He’s got plenty of other ideas, too. He tells me about a plan he’s mulling to create a stage show in which he’d play a superhero. “My superpower would be to show your superpower,” he says of his imagined interaction with the audience.
Thinking bigger—way bigger—he also mentions that he sometimes thinks about creating an entirely new “visual language,” with an iconic representation of words understood at the global level. It’d be a zany thought coming from the average person, but it carries more credibility coming from someone who’s studied linguistics and knows French and Italian in addition to his native English.
Throughout our conversation, there is one phrase Triffin repeats over and over, and it somehow spans every subject he covers, summing up this free-spirited health educator perfectly. The real path to health and happiness, Triffin says, is “choosing love as the answer, no matter the question.”
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.