Before the Baby Food Diet, the Paleo Diet, the South Beach Diet, the Atkins Diet, and even before the fat-free craze, there was one 19th-century fad diet that captured the curiosity of health-conscious Americans. It had all the trappings of a modern trendy weight-loss regimen: a controversial idea, popular books, and a dynamic guru.
Only, the followers of this diet were not looking to shed pounds, but rather sexual urges. What's more, it all revolved around a product that today is the stuff of childhood snacks and campfire treats: the graham cracker. Originally a bland biscuit made of unrefined flour, the graham cracker was part of a comprehensive diet and lifestyle system created by Sylvester Graham in response to what he deemed to be the single greatest health scourge facing Americans: sexual desire. Like any decent diet craze, Grahamism tore through the American collective culture in just a few short years, acquired thousands of ardent followers, challenged food, health and hygiene habits, incited a mob of bakers, and cost the job of at least one pepper-loving professor.
Sylvester Graham was a Northeastern evangelical minister during the temperance movements of the 1830s. While his fellow reformers were concerned with social and humanitarian issues like alcohol and tobacco consumption, women's rights, and slavery, Graham turned his attention to sex. Americans' animalistic desires were getting the better of them, he believed. Excesses in the way of recreational sex, gluttony, and materialism were leading Americans to depravity and making them physically ill.
Inspired by his religious ardor to save mankind, Graham encouraged people to take control of their health by repressing their carnal urges. These were easily stimulated by an all-American diet of flavorful, fatty, and meaty dishes. In Graham's view, the correlation between sex and health was simple: the more immoral the activity, the more bodily harm was done. And there was much immorality that needed suppressing. Graham made his name by giving popular speeches admonishing masturbation, believing it to "inflame the brain more than natural arousal," and therefore resulting in insanity. Sex more than once a month was downright pathological. "Graham was an extremist," says Dr. Ruth Clifford Engs, author of Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform. "There were other popular health reformers at the time, but sexual urges was his particular thing."
Graham was not the first to espouse many of these ideas, but he singularly made health a moral crusade. Unsurprisingly, Graham was written off by many as a crank. But some saw him as a visionary.
Graham is considered to be one of the fathers of the early American vegetarian movement. It was Graham's particular notion that Americans could shield themselves from debilitating stimulation and find salvation through clean living and healthy food. The Graham Diet consisted of simply-prepared bland foods with lots of whole grains, mostly fruits and vegetables, and no spices, meat, alcohol or tobacco. Even pepper was banned. And whatever foods were permitted were to be eaten in small quantities at just two meals per day. Graham also advocated radical ideas about health and hygiene such as bathing regularly, taking in fresh air and sunlight, drinking clean water, wearing comfortable clothing, and exercising daily.
Graham's diet amassed thousands of devotees that came up with their own cultish name: Grahamites. They wrote to Graham testifying to his diet's life-changing effects, citing recovery from all kinds of physical and mental ailments, from nervousness and despondency to dizziness and severe headaches. As Jayme A. Sokolow notes in Eros and Modernization: Sylvester Graham, Health Reform, and the Origins of Victorian Sexuality in America: "Graham's dual obsession with food and sex was complimentary; both drives represented dangers to complete self-control and independence." Graham knew that his crusade was a difficult one, but he plodded on.
As America's first "food nut," the quality of the nation's bread became Graham's main focus in the mid-1830s. Rapid industrialization and urbanization had caused dramatic societal changes. Families were removed from the land and their food sources for the first time. Yet, Americans mostly maintained the hearty diets of their pioneer ancestors, including plenty of meat and starches, as the proliferation of factories made mass-produced bread readily available for the first time. Graham seized upon the decline of homemade bread-making with nostalgic zeal, believing in the power of the iconic nurturing, bread-baking peasant mother to unite the family.
Once out of the hands of mothers, bakeries, Graham believed, were ruining American bread. White bread was a sign of quality, and harmful additives such as copper, alum, clay, and chalk were often added to whiten and extend flour. This wasn't sheer paranoia—unregulated bakeries did not always use the highest quality of ingredients, and adulteration was a problem in early commercial foods. But Graham's main target was white flour. Stripped of its healthful germ, Graham saw white flour as a poor substitute for whole wheat. It did not give the teeth or the stomach a proper workout and it led to a "lazy colon." In A Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making, Graham wrote:
Thousands in civic life will, for years, and perhaps as long as they live, eat the most miserable trash that can be imagined, in the form of bread, and never seem to think that they can possibly have anything better, not even that it is an evil to eat such vile stuff as they do … I have thought, therefore, that I could hardly do society a better service, than to publish the following treatise on a subject, which, whether people are aware of it or not, is, in reality, of very great importance to the health and comfort of every one.
Graham developed his own process for making whole-wheat flour, which he used for his Graham bread. Today we know this as graham crackers, though his bland germ loaf would hardly be confused for the later sugary, cinnamony Nabisco creation.
Graham's zeal literally incited violence. He was publicly mobbed in 1834 for attempting to lecture women on the virtues of chastity, and again a few years later by some angry butchers and bakers who considered him bad for business. Nevertheless, Graham flour lined store shelves, and his system of living even inspired the establishment of several male-only boarding houses where Grahamite meals were served and Graham's precise sleeping, exercise, and bathing regimens were strictly enforced. The Graham Diet went collegiate when Oberlin College adopted it for their dining plan in 1838. Three years later the students protested, one professor was fired over livening up his meal with black pepper, and the diet was rescinded. By the late 1830s, Graham had become too fanatical even for his Grahamites, and his influence began to wane.
Graham never promoted any of his products, believing himself to be on a mission from God for the sake of humanity, and he was therefore often financially strapped. He died in 1851 at age of 55 after a bitter retirement. But it wasn't until 1900 that his crackers began to be sold commercially by independent bakers. By 1931, the National Biscuit Company, which eventually became Nabisco, introduced a sugar variety and Graham's asceticism was long forgotten.
Strangely, Graham's greatest legacy may not be his diet or even his cracker, but rather cereal. In 1878 Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a Graham disciple, created a Grahamite cereal he called "Granola." Following its success, Kellogg formulated his recipe for "cornflakes" and thus launched the American breakfast cereal industry.
Graham could never have dreamed that this would be his contribution to history. In fact, he was certain that although he was labeled as a crank during his lifetime, he would be redeemed in death. He predicted that his Northampton, Massachusetts home would be turned into a national shrine. Instead, it now houses Sylvester's Restaurant, which appropriately offers a range of homemade breads (and also a lot of burgers). The only real lasting notoriety Graham received was through the cracker that bears his name, and which also happens to embody the very things he spent his life railing against: sweet flavor and mass production.