Long before graham crackers became the sneaky cookie-cracker combo beloved by everyone everywhere, they were a product of Grahamism, which could be oversimplified into an early form of vegetarianism. In actual fact, Grahamism was one of the first American temperance movements through which religious principles were gracelessly applied to dietary practices.
The man behind it all, Sylvester Graham, was one of 17 children sired by his father — born in Suffield, Connecticut in 1794 when the elder Graham was 72 years old. After a rough upbringing that caused him to develop a strict aversion to drinking, Graham found his purpose as a preacher and a fervent student of Christian theology. His decision to essentially preach a gospel of health shackled to a strict forbearance from indulging in any food or drink that might be in any way stimulating coincided with the landfall of the second cholera epidemic in the U.S. in the early 1830s.
While Graham’s area of specialization was broadly defined as “nutrition,” his basis for separating good foods from bad ones appeared to be predicated on how much enjoyment those items provided. In that respect, Graham’s food pronouncements were often hit or miss with respect to legitimate science. His tendency to decry all fun things separated his version of temperance from other varieties that only eschewed the consumption of meat or alcohol. For example, Graham likewise dismissed spices and seasonings as sinful luxuries, along with anything that gave food flavor or texture.
He especially loathed white flour. To his way of thinking, it was far too easily combined with sugar and other ingredients to form foods that were exceedingly rich and flavorful. The fact that they were fattening was secondary to their malevolence.
Bran — The Remedy for Godlessness
To counter the abominable wickedness of white flour, sugar’s all-too-frequent accomplice in crafting decadent pastries, the Grahamite movement produced a Graham-approved flour comprising unsifted, unrefined, unbleached whole wheat flour (delicious, I know).
“[Graham] gave specific instructions in regard to the treatment of the wheat used for bread making, namely that it must be plump, mature and free from rust and other diseases; it must be thoroughly cleansed, not only from chaff, cockles, tares and such substances, but also from smut and every kind of impurity that may be attached to the skin of the kernel,” Joseph Arthur LeClerc wrote in the 1913 book Graham Flour. “In other words, the wheat should be washed and cleaned from all impurities, ground by means of sharp stones, coarse rather than fine, inasmuch as the coarse ground flour makes a bread more wholesome.”
However, what Graham had no control over were the ways in which Graham flour was utilized by all who purchased or produced it. As such, Graham crackers originated as early as 1834, or long before Graham’s popularity hit its peak. Alternatively advertised as Graham cookies and Graham biscuits, these wafers — which were originally round before they were eventually pressed into the flat, rectangular sheets we presently associate them with — included butter, brown sugar and molasses. Each, of course, was an ingredient that Graham would have railed against, detesting the idea that they were in any way associated with his name.
All the same, the connection between Graham and the crackers (tenuous as it may have been) was made pretty plain from the names of some of the locations that sold them, including the Temperance Tea Store and Family Grocery in Philadelphia.
Graham Gets Lucky
Aside from the flour that bore his name, Graham’s reputation was also increasing in prominence for other reasons. In practice, his preferred method for preparing vegetables involved boiling the life out of them, not because he believed cooking them that way to be an inherently healthy practice, but because overcooking them drained them of their flavor, rendering them less inviting.
It was dumb luck that this particular tenet of Grahamism helped to kill cholera bacteria and slow the spread of the disease amongst the Grahamites. As a result, Graham gained considerable credibility, as evidenced by the descriptive language that began to accompany the announcement of some of his lectures and book releases, including the book A Lecture to Young Men on Chastity, released in 1834. “A book of serious importance — containing facts, information and warnings which should be imparted to every youth in the land, and more especially to parents and guardians,” stated The Boston Liberator.
That said, there was also a persistent stereotype at the time that the majority of Grahamites were underfed and malnourished because of their adherence to Graham’s teachings. Many newspapers took potshots at Graham whenever possible, and when he fell ill in July 1840, several others seized upon the opportunity to level insults at him. “It is not surprising that his health is feeble,” remarked the Baltimore Sun, “for his system is sufficient to destroy the health of any man of common vigor.”
When Graham managed to survive, it only prompted further insults. “Sylvester Sawdust Graham, Esq., the bran-bread philosopher, and author of the anti-meat, butter and flour system, is yet alive (although rumor has killed him time and time again),” declared The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in December 1842.
Not Such a Buzzkill After All?
Interestingly, outside of culinary extravagance, Graham could be shockingly liberal. “Mr. Graham contended, and promoted many ingenious arguments to show that dancing was not only an innocent and healthful recreation, but a practice in accordance with the laws of nature and perfectly consistent with the most elevated standards of morals and religion,” stated a newspaper summary of one of Graham’s lectures from March 1844.
Meanwhile, in an earlier lecture from March 1837, Graham caused a full-scale riot by preparing a lecture on female anatomy that dared to display a portrait of a nude woman. “In the hall was a transparent painting of the female form, which one of the women put out of sight when the mob entered,” The Public Ledger of Philadelphia reported. “Besides this, we have been informed that these lectures, intended for married ladies only, were upon the subject of physical education, and connected with anatomy and physiology. If this be true, we protect against any such lectures, and say that no modest matron would listen to them. We do not think that the best teachers are itinerant lecturers, assembling women promiscuously to address them upon subjects which really modest and virtuous women never speak of, excepting confidentially to each other, or to medical advisers.”
But again, whenever the subject turned to matters of food, Graham’s demeanor often swelled to a fiery rage. For instance, he flipped his shit during multiple public run-ins with intellectuals who approved of the consumption of animal products — a la a lively debate he had with a pro-meat advocate by the name of Dr. Wietling. “We had supposed that the effect of the vegetable diet was to make men as meek and gentle as lambs, but it would seem from the proceedings last night, that there is some of the old Adam left even in brown bread and sweet apples,” a reporter from The Evening Post of New York marveled.
The Death of a Preacher Man
Unfortunately, while Graham’s light burned bright, it didn’t burn for long. He died in September 1851 at the age of 57 due to complications from receiving an opium enema — a common treatment for reducing both diarrhea and irritability of the colon during that era. Once more, the press was particularly unkind. “Twelve or fifteen years ago, Graham’s system had many advocates in Boston, but we suspect most of his disciples have long since returned to ‘the fleshpots of Egypt,’” an obit in The New England Farmer read, referring to biblical metal kettles for cooking meat.
In a sense, it’s fitting that Graham’s legacy lives on through the graham cracker. Its very formation epitomizes the simultaneous zealous acceptance and impassioned rejection of Grahamism, all encapsulated in a single unrefined, sugary wafer.