Oh, how we humans love a good fad diet. South Beach? Oh yeah. Atkins? Yep. Zone? We’re down. How about the Graham diet? Eh? Never heard of it? That’s ok. It kind of lost steam in the mid to later 1800s, but the graham cracker we all love today was developed from elements of this diet- a fact that is surely causing Sylvester Graham, the minister/dietary reformer and creator of the diet, to roll over in his very uptight grave.
Graham, the man, not the cracker, lived from 1794-1851. He was a minister and self-taught dietician of sorts, advocating all kinds of self-deprivation from meat, to spices, to alcohol. But his goal wasn’t just to save his followers’ health, it was to save their souls as well. Graham believed that following his very strict diet would prevent one from succumbing to the horrors of impure thoughts, sexual desire, and masturbation, which he believed could lead to blindness or even early death….Ahem. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one poor little fad diet.
ANYWHOO, Graham found himself quite a following, and these “Grahamites” weren’t messing around (about the diet, or, presumably, in any other ways.) For example, Oberlin college in Northeast Ohio adopted Graham’s food regimen, and during the enforcement of the diet, a member of its staff was fired for the horrendous sin of bringing pepper to the school (no spices, remember?). The college eventually stopped the Graham diet policy in 1841.
Why, oh, why do we get so bossy about what we and other people put in their mouths?! I mean, some people get far more religious about this stuff than their actual religions. I myself- and would be surprised if others reading this have not experienced- a current disciple of one fad diet or the other casting me an eyebrows-raised look that is equal parts judgement and pity as I stuff something on their non-approved list in my mouth. After which they promptly launch into an explanation of how I will most likely die soon due to my appalling eating habits.
For each of the disciples, however, I think there must be at least an equal number of those who have had it up to here with the diet preachin’. Like, say, the bakers and butchers of Boston in 1837 who were none too thrilled with Grahams’ anti-meat, anti-commercially produced bread message for obvious reasons. These bakers and butchers formed an angry mob and marched on the hotel where Graham was speaking about his dietary beliefs. According to the Encyclopedia of Kitchen History, Grahamites dropped bags of lime from the roof of the hotel to scatter the mob, and the event was known thereafter as the Graham riot of 1837. Just this little nugget of historical information provided me with enough comedic imagery to keep a smile on my face for hours afterward. Here’s a drawing for you (I couldn’t resist):
But seriously, Graham truly believed he was helping people with his diet, and that has to be viewed as admirable. A lot of his diet recommendations probably did improve the health of his followers. Most importantly, if it weren’t for Graham and his dietary interest, we wouldn’t be able to make a proper s’more today.
The reason? Graham taught that the white flour which was stripped of nutrients and used in most commercially produced bread was unhealthy (he seems to be right on about this one), and so he developed an alternative form of flour made from a combination of finely-ground unbleached wheat flour with the wheat bran and germ coarsely-ground and then added back in. The graham flour was also free of the chemicals alum and chlorine, both later found to be toxic (Graham would not allow them in his flour because he believed they increased sex drive.). The flour was also used to make “Graham crackers,” a snack for those loyal to the Graham diet. This was the beginning of the treat we know today. I say the beginning of this treat, because the graham cracker we buy in our local grocery stores would be unrecognizable to poor Graham, as it has since been wonderfully and severely perverted by the Nabisco company with sugar and white flour leaving us with the devil cracker we all love.
It would most definitely not be on the Graham’s list of approved foods. Ironically, the cracker with old Sylvester’s namesake is now his legacy and while elements of his diet have since found their way into other diets, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a modern day Grahamite.
Nevertheless, Sylvester Graham was definitely a pioneer for the modern world’s obsession with dieting, and it’s since become something of a human habit to attach ourselves to specific regiments of food consumption (at least for short periods of time). History has no shortage of eccentric food fads, some of the most entertaining to me being the tapeworm diet (early 1900s), the cigarette diet (1920s), and the Twinkie diet (2010).
It makes us feel good to follow a diet, to be self-aware, and work toward the goal of losing weight and/or bettering our health. I can’t argue the fact that these are all very important and good things to be concerned with. The tradition of wellness/weight loss mania along with the belief in the almost magical benefits of following such diets has been in the making for quite a while, both in this country and others. Whether it helps or hurts or really does nothing for our overall health can be left up to those who know far more than me, but one thing I do know is that the history of it makes for good entertainment. And also, that I’m now craving a graham cracker… cheers!