Religious scholar Dana Logan traces the history of the graham cracker in a new article in Religion and Politics. The now-commonplace snacks take their name from Reverend Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister from Connecticut whose namesake crackers were first discussed in his 1837 work Treatise on Bread and Bread-making. Graham was a devout puritan and moral reformer who wanted to transform America’s sinful culture into a pure one, devoid of slavery, alcohol, and the equally sinful white flour. According to the article, Graham “believed alcohol, coffee, tea, sugar, meat, and refined grains were all unhealthy because of their distance from the ‘organic vitality’ of nature.” Graham held that such substances “taxed” the body, diminished one’s vitality, and, most curiously, led to sexual appetite. Graham included sex and masturbation on his list of both unhealthy and sinful activities that his parishioners must be free from, and famously urged them to eat bland foods to curb their lust. The Graham cracker—piously bland and made with unrefined grains— gained popularity in the boarding houses that Graham founded for his young followers:
The boarding houses became places where the most serious Graham followers, dubbed the Grahamites, experimented with the most stringent versions of the diet. They ate whole-wheat crackers and other baked goods made with minimal sugar and fat, along with fruits and vegetables, all served with water. At the dinner table, tenants were encouraged to chastise one another for laxity.
Graham’s ideas about human physiology must have seemed a little out there even in the midst of America’s great religious revival, but they had tremendous influence over a whole generation of Protestant ministers. Graham’s diet was formally picked up by the Seventh Day Adventists, who began to sell the first “Graham Crackers” at their facilities. From here, the cracker caught the attention of some of America’s great food mass-marketers. Two Adventists, the Kellogg brothers Will and John, would go on to market Graham crackers alongside the Kellogg Company’s classic corn flakes as everyday foods rich in moral fiber and Christ-love.
Ironically, the popular food Graham left behind has strayed from its puritan roots and is today considered a relatively unhealthy snack mostly eaten as a dessert.
It is perhaps a fitting irony that today Graham’s name is best known for its association with Graham Crackers—the key ingredient, alongside sugary marshmallows and chocolate, in that beloved campfire treat, a s’more. If Grahamism teaches us anything about today’s food reformers—and I think it does—it’s that there are dangers in sermonizing to the undisciplined masses. Ultimately the modern food movement and its progressive champions may find themselves confronted with the same problem. In their zeal, their mission becomes a fad, a commodity to be consumed en masse, no more healthy than the Graham crackers in a s’more. It satisfies our needs in the short-term, but always leaves us wanting more.
The modern health food movement championed by Whole Foods and First Lady Michele Obama eerily resembles Graham’s nineteenth-century craze for purity in the diet; both eagerly push fresh and organic foods for all. Though you can still find organic Grahams today, the number of unpronounceable ingredients in your good old box of Nabisco Honey Maid Grahams would have Mr. Graham rolling in his grave.
Author’s Note: There is (unfortunately) no relation between Reverend Sylvester Graham and our beloved Editor Blake J. Graham.