Utopia In a Cereal Bowl
John Harvey Kellogg and his brother, Will Keith Kellogg hit upon a health-food bonanza quite by accident. They wanted to develop a new breakfast food for clients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a 19th-century health spa where John was the medical director. Will, who assisted his big brother at "the San," as the spa was known, accidentally left a pot of boiled wheat soaking overnight. When he put the wheat through rollers, it came out in large, thin flakes. Their clients liked the taste, but the Kelloggs thought they could do better. In 1902, they used corn to develop a crisp, malt-flavored cereal. They called it Toasted Corn Flakes, and the public went nuts for it.
The invention of cornflakes gave birth to a food giant, the Kellogg Co., and set off a cereal rush in Battle Creek, Mich. Yet the real story behind cornflakes is the history of the health-reform movement in America. The reformers were utopian thinkers, yearning for a society transformed by diet, free of disease, pure, a life filled with the bounty and simplicity of the Garden of Eden.
This vision was in marked contrast to the reality of 19th-century America. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, waves of European immigrants and young, rural job seekers poured into growing cities, where sewage treatment and water purification were unknown. "It was a period of upheaval," says historian Warren Belasco, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. People were looking for some means of controlling the changes, and purifying their bodies was one way.
Back to basics. So, in the 1830s, when a Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia named Sylvester Graham began "preaching a system of control and health based on diet," says Belasco, "people were interested in hearing it." A popular orator and abolitionist, Graham studied the teachings of the Quakers and members of the Bible Christian Church, the first vegetarian church in the nation. He believed that eating what Adam and Eve ate would restore balance to the body. Meat, shellfish, fatty sauces, salt, spices, sugar, coffee, tea, condiments, and, of course, alcohol were forbidden. "The simpler, plainer, and more natural the food ... the more healthy, vigorous, and long-lived will be the body," Graham wrote.
Graham was fixated on controlling sexual urges, particularly masturbation, through diet. He maintained that some foods could "overstimulate" the organs, leading to indigestion and sexual arousal. "Graham believed you had to avoid foods that stayed in the body because he believed they fermented, essentially turned to alcohol," explains Hillel Schwartz, a cultural historian from the University of California-San Diego. Fermentation could lead to "nervous irritability" and eroticism. "The most positive part of his regimen was that if you ate pure foods, you had a longer life," Schwartz adds.
No less because much of the food in the Jacksonian era was heavily adulterated. Commercially baked bread, for example, was available, but its wheat germ, bran, and fiber had been removed. In their place toxic "stretchers," like lime, were sometimes added to cut costs. Graham was horrified by these practices, and in his 1837 A Treatise on Bread and Bread-making, he outlined his forward-thinking theory that fiber was vital for health. He marketed his own high-fiber Graham flour and a version of his famous Graham cracker, the first health foods available.