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The Rev. Sylvester (Graham Cracker) Graham: America's early fiber crusader.


Arecent query of a group of graham-cracker-munching fourth-graders revealed that only one knew who invented the familiar golden cookie.

"Alexander Graham Bell,' said Emily-Sue Hicks, lips moist with chocolate milk. "He invented everything.'

A decade ago, the San Francisco superintendent of schools reversed a ban on the classic cookie instigated by his food director. "Graham crackers and milk,' he said, "are one of the fondest memories of my childhood.'

But did he know about the Rev. Sylvester Graham? Ha!

Sylvester Graham, a fiery Yankee preacher of the turbulent 1800s, believed that a high-fiber, natural-food diet would remedy cholera, alcoholism, premature aging, violence, sexual abuses and digestive ills.

Graham believed he had a divine mission to save the souls and the stomachs of the dietary heathen. He dreamed of the day when "all America would eat like Christians instead of boa constrictors.'

The gospel according to Graham was classically simple:

Eat your daily bread from fresh grains and drink pure water.

Eat fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables, grains and seeds.

Enjoy pure milk, fresh cheeses and eggs in moderation.

Avoid fat, salt, sugar, meat, alcohol, tobacco and stimulants.

Enjoy fresh air, frequent bathing and exercise.

Get seven hours sleep.

Keep a serene spirit.

Sounds pretty innocent, right? But the Graham System stirred enormous controversy. Thousands of rapt devotees attended numbing lectures with such titles as "The Science of Human Life' and "Lecture on Epidemic Diseases Generally and Particularly the Spasmodic Cholera,' and some hailed the lanky minister as a "star that shines into the Egyptian darkness of medical ignorance'--but others sneered at him as "Father Fiber' or "a nut among the crackers.' Emerson christened him "the prophet of bran bread and pumpkins,' but angry butchers and bakers, armed with tar pots and feathers, staged riots whenever he spoke. One newspaper even accused the earnest orator of illustrating his talks with lewd pictures and live, naked women! A physician declared he would as soon see his female kin emerge from a brothel "as from the secret lectures of this infamous man.'

There were, of course, no nude models, and Dr. Graham's dirty pictures were about as erotic as stomach diagrams for Pepto-Bismol. Graham was simply convinced that everybody should have a basic knowledge of human physiology--a startling concept for his day.

Graham was humiliated by the suggestion that he be investigated by a grand jury and shocked that the mayor of Boston refused to give him proper protection. Never one for modesty, Graham likened his persecution to that of Saint Paul, who was mocked, slandered and beaten for his courage.

Even considering Victorian prudery, why all the fuss over some health lectures? To understand the Reverend Graham's impact on his era and on our own, we must first examine the man and then the explosive society into which he was thrust.

The 17th child of an aging minister, Graham was born in West Suffield, Connecticut, in 1974. He lost both his father and a brother before he was two years old. His mother collapsed from the strain of caring for six dependents and was sent to an asylum.

The emotional scars Graham suffered from being motherless, poor and unwanted certainly lasted all his life. Shuffled from hand to hand, he was billeted with a tavern keeper at age five. The experience made him hate liquor and the behavior it triggered. The lad grew so ill he was packed off to relatives.

Most health reformers have a history of wretched health. Graham was no exception. Only his will sustained him through tuberculosis, nervous exhaustion and overwork. Yet he was a born organizer and loved to plan balls and parties, sans liquor. Never a racist, he danced with free black girls and gave lectures to those of color.

He was not only poor, he was different. On a trumped-up charge, he was expelled from college. He was thwarted in marrying the girl he adored. His dreams of following a professional career like his Scottish grandfather, who was both minister and physician, seemed fanciful.

But as Tocqueville wrote in Graham's heyday, "Every American is eaten up with longing to rise.' Graham battled his weak body to rise like new bread, for the leaven of his longing to be famous was irrepressible. With the help of his wife's small dowry--she had nursed him through illness--he became a minister at 32. His natural talents swiftly propelled him into the limelight. He spoke against demon rum and whiskey, then the horrors of masturbation, and last, how to arm against Asiatic cholera.

The Jacksonian days were a ferment of social change. Dramatically increased literacy, improved income and better transportation made reform movements inevitable. Says Edith Cole: "Each worthy cause boasted a reform society . . . to promote temperance, to improve asylums, to free or colonize Negroes . . . to help fallen women, to eliminate corsets, to change diet and improve health. . . .'

It was also a time of sickness. We hear so much about the hardy pioneers that we forget how sick they were. In 1822 Indianapolis had 1,000 people, 900 of whom had bouts of malaria. Not only did people suffer degenerative disease, but filth, bad water and overcrowding made infectious diseases flourish. The British visitor Frances Trollope was horrified to find garbage in the streets and moist pig snouts brushing against her skirts. (Later she realized that without such porcine "Herculean service,' the town would have been uninhabitable.)

American immigrants sweated in dank and dangerous workshops, and their living quarters were also foul. Dr. Graham complained that young women were often housed three to a bed and six to a room. He correctly observed that although incomes were soaring, nutritional standards had plunged.

The dietary world of Sylvester Graham's time was one of galloping consumption and chronic indigestion. Meat was devoured at all three daily meals, the average consumption being 178 pounds a year in the 1830s. "Amazing Maize' supplied whiskey, food for hogs and poultry and the familiar corn pone and grits, soaked in grease gravy and corn syrup.

Foreign observers watched in amazement as Americans, arms working like fiddlers, dispatched mountains of hog meat, pastries, fried potatoes, cheeses, pickles, jams, cakes and hot breads without conversation or pause. Meals were washed down with raw whiskey--the only thing "that would cut the layers of grease.' Dr. Daniel Drake reported to his colleagues that he knew of "several cases in which fat men had so stuffed themselves with grease and alcohol that they exploded when sparks from a fire fell on them.'

Graham's own wife insisted on gin and wine to aid her in nursing her babies. She tempted her spouse with rich food, slipped meat to the children and ridiculed his theories.

Overeating and its ravages were called dyspepsia or "dyspepsy,' charmingly defined by the dictionary as "deranged digestion.' Dyspepsy was actually a blanket term for foul breath, furry tongue, bilious headaches, bloated belly, chronic constipation and windy habits. It was no accident that the first American patent medicine, in 1796, was for Samuel Lee's Bilious Pills. They sold briskly.

Graham's program held great appeal for many. Orthodox medicine was crude, violent and often dangerous. Bleeding was considered so beneficial that patients were commonly bled into unconsciousness. When they weren't being bled, they were being purged. Cathartics like mercuryrich calomel eroded jaws and loosened teeth.

Such heroic medicine was counter-balanced by native healers, who used sweat baths, emetics, herbs and devices like Anti-Consumptive Cork Soles and Medicated Fur Chest Protectors. Mysterious cures emerged from such exotic sources as scrolls found under mummies or on Babylonian clay tablets.

Graham's regimen was at worst harmless and cheap. At best it mirrors current medical thinking with striking accuracy. After all, isn't a low-fat, high-fiber diet the darling of the Pritikin world? Haven't the heart, cancer and diabetes folks been telling us to eat less cholesterol and more natural foods?

Graham traced his simple program to a romantic, Edenlike world in which man ate a completely natural diet of nuts, seeds, fruits and berries. Straying from this natural diet ruined not only his health but his moral fiber as well. That is why we have suffering and disease, he claimed.

The Stone Age Tasaday of the Philippines fulfilled his vision of the past. They had never eaten sugar or salt and lived in harmony with their environment. Of course, they had perfect teeth, beautiful bodies and were as gentle as woodland deer.

Graham was convinced that a rawfood diet was best because it was close to nature. He felt such a regimen was excellent for the teeth and jaws and indispensable for healthy bowels. Only recently, two distinguished physicians in Kaiser Permanente Medical Center at Los Angeles seriously proposed a raw-food diet for chronic obesity and diabetes. Said the researchers, "By using rustic, simple observations, we found the cure for obesity.' One author tested the theory by living on leafy salads and raw sunflower seeds with water for two years. Why did the program work? These experts concluded that uncooked foods leave the stomach slowly, require more chewing and leave "heat-labile' vitamins and enzymes intact.

Graham didn't know what vitamins were, but he shrewdly observed that man was automatically protected from concentrated foods by eating raw foods. He insisted it was impossible to become fat with so much to chew. Chewing also depended upon good teeth, free of tartar and cavities. Graham set high value on personal hygiene, inside and out.

Although Graham was enthusiastic about raw foods, he realized that people were devoted to baked bread. Indeed, bread had Biblical sanction. The bread he insisted upon, however, had to be complete. He warned, "What God hath joined, let no man put asunder,' referring to the divorce of the nutritious germ and bran from the wheat berry.

Today, even experts think that people ate wholesome bread until the 1870s, when high-speed rollers extracted the germ and bran. This belief is untrue. The comic writer Tobias Smollett said in 1771: "The bread I eat in London is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum and bone-ashes . . . the good people are not ignorant of this adulteration; but they sacrifice their taste, and their health and the lives of their tender infants . . . and the miller or the baker is obliged to poison them and their families.'

Although the bread Graham complained of was not snowy, but rather freckled, it was certainly bad enough. It lacked fiber, which he called "bulk' or the "innutritious matter' in food. As a farm boy, he had notice that animals fed purified foods grew sick. "It has been fully proved,' he said, "that bulk . . . is quite as important to health as nourishment.' This scientific proof, frequently cited, was that a dog fed on white bread died in 40 days, and another fed on whole meal flourished. We know today that wheat lacks an amino acid called lysine, but these reformers had no cause to be displeased with the experiment.

All concentrated forms of food, Graham declared, were "unfriendly' to the vital interests of the body. He cited fats, sugar, honey, molasses and starch as "concentrated aliments,' to be used with discretion. Instead of slathering butter on bread, he suggested Graham butter, which was rich milk thickened with brown flour.

He scoffed at the notion that bran was worthless or injurious to the colon. After all, he noted, man had fed on coarse grains for millennia. "We have a 36-foot length of colon,' he said. "Nature intended for us to use it . . .. Bran operates as a stimulus for the intestinal canal.

"The mucilage of wheat bran,' he continued, "is probably one of the most soothing substances in the vegetable kingdom . . .. Chronic constipation and diarrhea spring from the same root.' And that pernicious root was lack of bulk.

Anticipating Dr. Denis Burkitt by 135 years, he asserted that even chronic disease could vanish when coarse foods were adopted. "Thousands,' he claimed, "are living witnesses of the virtues of [real] bread.' And he cited a critic of the 15th century as saying: "The eating of fine bread . . . is inimical to health and contrary to health and reason; and it was first invented to gratify wanton and luxurious persons.'

Graham went further than just promoting bulk foods. He insisted that bread's taste and nutrition depended upon the soil the grain was raised on; soil properly composted with manure from healthy animals was obviously best. He often spoke of the land being debauched by greedy farmers.

Because of his insistence on natural things, Graham supposed that unleavened bread was probably superior. But he contented himself with urging people to eat wholesome bread, properly "proofed' with good yeast and eaten when a day old.

Health crusaders were unanimous in condemning fragrant, hot bread. (At the time, alcohol was thought to emerge from the loaf.) Fresh bread sliced badly and begged for chunks of butter, but critics were far more concerned that bolting hot breads and muffins would discourage chewing. The authoress Sarah Hale said, "Hot bread, lying undigested, prostrates the system.' About hot dumplings, she added, "One might as well eat, with the hope of digesting . . . a brick from the ruins of Babylon.' Of course, both she and Graham were adamant about the folly of lard pastries, rich cakes and puddings, confections and the essence of sin--hot mince pie. The latter was not just an orgy of lard crust, but contained enough whiskey, brandy and porter to fell a baby elephant!

Graham's book Treatise on Bread, which once sold briskly for four dollars a dozen, is now a rare book, worth hundreds of dollars and guarded in locked libraries. The book insists that bread-making was the province of the loving wife and mother--only the goddess of the hearth could suffuse her dough with the leaven of love. Bakers were only greedy scalawags, who adulterated their products with additives. (One William Alcott once refused to surrender a recipe for Graham bread to a baker and said he was morally unfit for the task.)

Of course, bakers were furious with Graham's (quite accurate) accusations about adulterated bread. They hooted at the notion that only good mothers could make good bread and that each home should have a grain mill and a fiddle (doubtless to produce a harmonious loaf). A few bakers tried a commercial whole-wheat loaf, but most took the easy way--white flour with some bran and molasses.

As Graham's lectures on health and physiology grew in fame, they triggered lively reform. A weekly entitled The Graham Journal of Health and Longevity joined the 85-odd popular health magazines that flourished from 1830 to 1890. Graham boarding houses sprang up and aroused praise from such reformers as Horace Greeley and William Lloyd Garrison. In the latter's newspaper, the Liberator, the abolitionist Garrison lauded Graham's system of dietetics and gave his books glowing praise. One article waxed lyrical about the joys of boarding-house living a la Graham: superb bread, boiled spuds, crunchy apples and fresh air, unfouled with tobacco fumes or stale whiskey. Roomers rose to bells and a brisk, cold shower after a serene night on a straw mattress.

The reforming zeal reached college campuses, where frugal students welcomed cheap food. Oberlin College embraced a glorious experiment in total Graham living. The rules were so strict that one professor was fired for bringing a pepper shaker to meals! Wearying of bleak porridge, stale bread and crust coffee, students finally petitioned successfully for relief. But staunch Graham supporters continued their brisk walks and workouts with Indian clubs and munched their way to glory.

In 1834 Graham published a whole book of case histories, pompously entitled The Aesculapian Tablets of the Nineteenth Century, in which grateful patients revealed how a vegetable diet had saved them from frightful maladies.

Graham supporters and fellow travelers were a motley lot. They embraced the Bloomer bunch, the Quakers and the Shakers, the phrenologists, the free-lovers and the watercure and gymnasium folks. Graham's most famous disciple was, of course, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a consummate showman and leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Sanitarium. Indeed, the teachings of Graham underlie the whole Battle Creek movement. The first cold breakfast cereal, Granula, was simply Graham crackers, broken up and baked again.

But Graham's popularity waned as new stars took over the scene. He was old and exhausted at 50 from a lecture schedule that once when 70 days in a row without rest. Sometimes he finished his lectures on his knees-- not from "theater,' but from the pain. He retired to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he bombarded the local paper with solemn letters and worked feverishly on his masterwork, Meat and Wine in the Bible.

Clad in slippers and a shabby dressing gown, he would wander the streets and mutter about domestic plots. Toward the end, he begged his "man' to push him in a wheelbarrow to the local barber "professor,' in a vain hope to restore his strength. It was for naught. He went to his Creator after a good bath in 1851 at the age of 57.

Was Graham a failure? He confided to a friend that someday people would tear down his house, stone by stone, and raise a monument. (Always the orator--his house was frame.)

A failure? J. H. Kellogg didn't think so. He himself died at 91 after decades of vigorous chewing, vegetables and cold showers. John D. Rockefeller didn't think so. He rebuilt his health on milk and Graham crackers, exercised daily and said good-by just a bit short of 98 years.

No, Sylvester Graham was no failure. His insights on hygiene, exercise and diet were wonderfully modern. He knew nothing of soluble or insoluble fiber. All he did was eat it--the Scottish oatmeal of his ancestors, the unbolted breads and crackers, the pumpkins, apples, beans and berries. He had no fancy labs with caged rats, computers or electron microscopes. He didn't know lignin from a lightning rod, but he figured out the fiber story all by himself.

Yes, he was vain, windy and eccentric. Sometimes he was gloriously wrong. But he had something special --Yankee horse sense. So the next time you fill your plate at the salad bar or reach for the whole-wheat pita, think about Dr. Graham. The next time you bake your family some real bread, give that fragrant dough a squeeze for Sylvester. (And go easy on the butter.)

We owe this Yankee minister a lot. Perhaps someone reading this article will even reach in his pocket and fulfill Graham's confident dream--a 100-foot monument to his memory.

But please: no giant graham cracker . . .

Jean Farmer's Old-fashioned Oats

(Serves 1 grandfather)

Stir in 2 tablespoons dry skim milk, 1 tablespoon wheat germ (toasted) and 1 tablespoon wheat bran. Top with 1/16 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 tablespoon dates (they now come diced without flour). Optional: half a grated apple.

Grandpa Farmer is 90 and eats his porridge daily!

Donna Patt's Pineapple Date Square

(Serves 12)


3/4 cup pitted dates, packed down, then cut in pieces

1 can (20 oz.) unsweetened, crushed pineapple

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon salt or salt substitute

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla

Crumb mixture

1/4 cup oil

3/4 cup apple concentrate

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup quick oats

1/4 cup oat bran

3/4 cup whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup wheat bran

1/4 teaspoon salt or salt substitute

1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

To make filling, put dates, pineapple (drain off 1/2 cup liquid), lemon juice and salt or salt substitute in a saucepan and simmer with pan covered for 15 minutes. Mix 2 tablespoons water with cornstarch and vanilla and add to pineapple mixture while stirring. Stir-cook until thick. Set aside to cool. To make crumb mixture, measure oil, apple concentrate and vanilla in glass measuring cup and hold. Stir-cook in dry saucepan over medium heat until light, golden brown. Remove from heat and add salt. Whip the oil mixture with a fork until well mixed and pour into mixture of oats, bran and flour. Mix until crumbly. Put half the crumbs on bottom of oil-rubbed, 8-inch-square baking dish. Spread evenly and press down. Spread pineapple mixture evenly over this. Top with remaining crumb mixture. Sprinkle with nuts and press down lightly. Bake in preheated 350| F. oven for 35 minutes. Cool, then chill several hours. Cut into 12 squares.

Ann Enman's Bran Apple Bread

(Makes 1 loaf)

2 1/2 cups cereals crushed in blender

3/4 cup Bran Chex

3/4 cup Cracklin' Oat Bran

1 cup Bran Buds

1 cup milk

2/3 cup margarine

1/2 cup honey

2 eggs

3/4 cup whole-wheat flour

3/4 cup white flour, enriched

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt or salt substitute

1 cup apples, unpeeled, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 | F. and grease one loaf pan. Blend all ingredients and fold in the finely chopped apple last. Avoid overmixing. Pour into pan and bake about 55-60 minutes. Cover lightly with aluminum foil "tent' during end of the baking period to prevent excessive browning.

Photo: Contest winner Jean Farmer bakes a batch of fiber-filled, homemade graham crackers that would have pleased their namesake, the Rev. Sylvester Graham (above, left).
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes recipes
Author:Farmer, Jean
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1985
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