While eating graham crackers recently, we were discussing the myth that they were invented to keep girls from engaging in, uh, self-abuse. Is this true? How were they supposed to work? Didn't Graham realize he might frustrate an entire generation?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Frustrate, nothing. Health lecturer Sylvester Graham (1794-1851) was trying to save shattered lives — not just of women, but everybody who suffered from what Graham referred to variously as “venereal excess” or “aching sensibility.” Graham thought intense physical desire, no matter how expressed and regardless of whether you were married or not, was guaranteed to have dire physiological consequences.
A forebear of the hairy-palms-and-blindness school of moral instruction, Graham said excessive carnal exercise would cause indigestion, headache, feebleness of circulation, pulmonary consumption, spinal diseases, epilepsy, insanity, and early death of offspring, among other things. He thought men should remain virgins until age 30 and then should make love only once a month — not at all if they were sickly.
To control lust, Graham prescribed a special vegetarian diet, the centerpiece of which was “Graham bread,” made from whole wheat flour. Graham crackers, which Graham invented in 1829, were another manifestation of the same idea.
Graham attracted a fair number of followers, who opened Graham boardinghouses in New York and Boston where his dietary regimen was observed. But most people regarded him as a nut. He was assaulted by mobs on at least three occasions, once by butchers and bakers who thought he was going to drive them out of business. He was cranky and aloof and alienated even those who admired him, so much so that he gave up the lecture business in 1839 and lived out the last years of his life in relative obscurity.
His saving grace was that in many important respects he was right. Although he was a little goofy on the question of sex, many of his ideas about health were sound. He advocated daily toothbrushing, once considered a revolutionary idea, as well as fresh air, regular bathing, exercise, and seven hours of sleep. During an era of recurring cholera epidemics he urged people to drink pure water.
Most important, we now know the diet he recommended to be vastly more healthy than the one Americans were eating at the time, or for that matter eat today. He railed against commercial bakers who used refined flour devoid of dietary fiber. He urged the consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and seeds. Strictly verboten were fat, salt, sugar, tobacco, alcohol, and stimulants. Modern dieticians aren’t as strongly opposed to meat as he was (although they’d certainly advise fish and poultry rather than red meat), and they’d go easy on the fat- and cholesterol-laden milk, cheese, and eggs he recommended. But by and large “the prophet of bran bread and pumpkins” was right on the money.
One more thing: if you were starting to feel virtuous because you eat graham crackers, don’t. Despite the name, most brands of “graham cracker” today use refined white flour. If you want the real thing (more or less), try the Health Valley or New Morning brands, which can be found in health food stores. They use whole wheat flour, soy oil, unsulfured molasses, and no preservatives.
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