Monday, April 27, 2015

The Graham Cracker--Relic of the First Food Revolution

If you're like me, you thought vegetarianism in the U.S. started with the 1960's counterculture, or, at least, in the health food movement of the '70's. It actually began with a nineteenth century Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham. He hailed from Connecticut, and he had some mighty powerful convictions about food that seem nothing less than prescient today. 

Rev. Graham,  July 5, 1794 – September 11, 1851

During the early decades of the Industrial Revolution, an important problem was the preservation of flour. It becomes rancid in a matter of months, and when it had to travel sometimes hundreds of miles on muddy, sheep-clogged roads to get to stores and bakeries, it most likely had gone bad by the time it got there. Removing the germ (where the soon-to-be-rancid fatty acids were stored) was a brilliant solution. Without the germ, flour cannot become rancid. Degermed flour became standard. Problem solved!

The degermed flour that was produced was far lighter in weight, and smoother in texture, than whole wheat flour, and was preferred by bakers as less labor-intesive in the making of bread and pastries. The new flour was also far lighter in color as well, producing a slight yellowish shade of white to the dough and resulting products. To improve upon this, bakers typically used additives to achieve the alabaster brightness we still know and love in our grocery aisles today.

This stuff. At our house, we were never allowed to eat this stuff.

What they didn't know then was anything they couldn't see with the naked eye. For instance, removing the natural oils from the whole grain also removes many of the vitamins and nutrients. You know, the "food" part of food. And what do you think the bakers were using to make the bread so white? Typically, alum and chlorine--yum. Today, potassium bromate, azodicarbonamide, or chlorine dioxide gas does the job, so relax! It's fine!

Back in the early nineteenth century, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, anything made by a machine, or in factories, or in large quantities, was the rage. The American romance with consumerism had begun. The growing middle class demanded ready-made, store-bought goods--why not food, too? White bread became a status symbol of the middle class, and was valued for the "purity and refinement" of its color. Darker wheat bread came to be considered the fare of country rubes, and the less well-to-do.

Enter Rev. Graham. Even though he knew no more about nutrition than anyone else of his time, to him, white bread was the opposite of "pure." He and his followers strongly condemned it as being essentially devoid of nutrition, a claim echoed by nutritionists ever since. Graham believed that a firm bread made of coarsely ground whole wheat flour was more nutritious and healthy, and in 1829, he invented “Graham Bread,” and the recipe first appeared in The New Hydropathic Cookbook (New York, 1855). 

About this time, Graham also invented the "Graham Diet," which consisted mainly of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole wheat and high fiber foods, and excluded meat altogether -- basically modern vegetarianism. Very fresh milk, cheese, and eggs were permitted in moderation, and butter was to be used “very sparingly”. Tea and coffee were verboten; ditto, alcohol.

Graham believed that the way most people were eating was intrinsically unhealthy. That meat products, sugar, honey, and spices, over-stimulated people, and that this excitability lead to alcoholism and excessive sexual desire. He was particularly disturbed by masturbation, which he believed was an evil that lead inevitably to insanity, and, of course, blindness.

He preached that a vegetarian diet was the cure, and spread that gospel every chance he got. In 1837, he had difficulty finding a place to speak in Boston because of threatened riots by butchers and commercial bakers, perhaps proving his point that eating their products made a person excitable, and mentally unstable.

Sure, he looks harmless, but ... !

"Grahamites," as Graham’s followers were called, accepted the teaching of their mentor with regard to all aspects of lifestyle. They practiced abstinence from alcohol, frequent bathing, daily brushing of teeth, vegetarianism, and a generally sparse lifestyle, and, of course, ate a LOT of his graham bread.

Besides vegetarianism, one of the Grahamites’ major contributions to American culture was probably their insistence on frequent bathing, and teeth brushing.

Graham’s doctrines also found later followers in two brothers named Kellogg. Their invention of corn flakes was a logical extension of the Grahamite approach to nutrition.

Oh, and there is one more notable item: the graham cracker, as his graham bread came to be called.

One can only hope that in the great Hereafter, the Rev. Mr. Graham has no idea the abomination we have made of his dietary touchstone.

Really, people?

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