September 11, 2019

graham cracker

September 11 is the anniversary (1851) of the death of vegetarian, minister, and vehement abstainer Sylvester Graham. Remember him with a flavorless biscuit, a glass of water, and a steamy session of hand holding.

graham cracker
n. a slightly sweet cracker made of whole wheat flour
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

The innocuous brown bookends surrounding the toasted marshmallows and melted chocolate of a s’more are the namesake of one of the founders of the American vegetarian movement—Sylvester Graham. While many associate graham crackers with the dessert course of a summer campfire feast of hot dogs and hamburgers or they pour a hefty serving of milk over a breakfast bowl of Golden Grahams cereal, poor Reverend Graham is rolling over in his grave.

Graham was a nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister who was convinced that an austere diet and healthy living could help curb sexual urges—particularly “self-abuse,” as he called it—as well as alcoholism. Graham was born in 1794, the seventeenth of seventeen children, and became ordained as a minister in 1826 at the peak of a health food craze and temperance movement in the United States.

Though an early and ardent member of the Pennsylvania Temperance Society, Reverend Graham was, first and foremost, a crusader against lust—and he believed that bland foods were just the ticket to put out the forbidden fire. For Reverend Graham, unhealthy diets awoke excessive sexual desire, which led to disease. He once posited that ham and sausage “increase the concupiscent excitability and sensibility of the genital organs.”

The Graham Diet, as it was known, was comprehensive. Fresh fruits and vegetables were okay; meat and spices were not. Only very fresh milk, cheese, and eggs could be consumed, while butter was discouraged. Modern graham crackers, which would not be named as such until nearly thirty years after his death, would have horrified Reverend Graham with their refined, bleached white flour. His original versions—called Dr. Graham’s Honey Biskets—called for the use of a hard, unsifted, and coarsely ground whole wheat flour called “Graham flour,” which was introduced in 1829. The Graham Diet eventually worked its way even into the houses of higher learning. Oberlin College instituted such a strict version of it (abandoned in 1841) that many students opted to eat off campus, and a professor was terminated for bringing in contraband pepper to season his food.

To be sure, Graham was an early whistle-blower on some pretty reprehensible food industry practices. He opposed the increasingly popular bakery additives of the time, such as alum and chlorine, used to make bread bake faster and appear artificially whiter. Many consumers, particularly in urban areas, regarded “refined” bread (i.e., white bread) as a more pure product. Responding to this perception, unscrupulous dairies added chalk and even plaster of paris to their milk to make it whiter. Unfortunately, Graham’s rejection of meat and industrialized bread and dairy led to frequent riot threats from commercial bakers and butchers when his lectures were advertised.

But food was merely one part of a larger puritanical lifestyle. In addition to restrictions on eating, he advocated frequent bathing and hard mattresses and he opposed social drinking. Zealots attended his lectures in droves, and he was famously explicit in his descriptions of despicable behavior. Women allegedly fainted when he outlined the adverse effects of masturbation.

Grahamites, as his followers were called, stayed in “Graham Boarding Houses” in New York and Boston, where they abstained from alcohol, tobacco, meat, and sexy thoughts while reading his many writings—including Lectures to Young Men on Chastity. Among these followers were newspaperman Horace “Go West, Young Man” Greeley and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of cornflakes.

Reverend Graham was instrumental in founding the American Vegetarian Society in 1850, one year before his death.

Though Americans today enjoy a sweetened, less wholesome, and perhaps more lustful version of Reverend Graham’s tasty namesake, it is perhaps more fitting that we remember him as Ralph Waldo Emerson dubbed him—“the poet of bran and pumpkins.”