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.