Graham crackers: the original health food (or, bourbon marshmallow s'mores with bacon!)

06 August 2015


It may surprise you to learn that fad diets are not a recent phenomenon; the 1830s saw a health food craze, founded by Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), sweep across the US. Graham’s philosophy resonates with current trends; championing fresh fruit and vegetables and wholegrains while cutting out fat, meat and sugar. He prophesied the decline in the health of the nation with the availability of mass produced bread, rallying against the refined, bleached flour used in production. He was one of the first advocates for vegetarianism and his meal plans would not be out of place in a 2015 Paleo Diet or Hemsley and Hemsley blog (I think he would have approved of kale juice). His diet had a cult following and in a hysteria akin to modern fan-girling, his supporters called themselves ‘Grahamites’. 

This is perhaps where the similarities with modern trends end however, as Graham’s main adversary was flavour. His movement called for ‘temperance’ and campaigned against excess in diet. Along with fat, meat and sugar, he saw strong flavours as gluttonous and all spices were on the banned list. The main criteria for the food that he recommended was for it to be bland. Many institutions, particularly those of a religious or educational nature or rehabilitation centres, followed his guidelines rigidly. Once such institution, Oberlin College, infamously fired a Professor for sneaking in black pepper to liven up his flavourless meals. 

Graham Journal of Health and Longevity. Image © The Library Company of Philadelphia. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

A Presbyterian minister, part evangelical, part quack, Graham’s championing of bland food was based on a belief that rich food fuelled immorality. Sexual depravity was the chief focus of his fight against ‘intemperance’, he argued that sex more than once a month was pathological, an addiction fed by eating fat and flesh. And so he presented bland food as the antidote to debauchery, the way to supress destructive carnal urges. To save the souls of the nation he invented the now iconic Graham Cracker, originally very bland, to cool the fires of sexual desire (he wasn’t alone in his beliefs; in 1878 John Harvey Kellogg, a Grahamite himself invented Cornflakes as another tasteless form of sustenance).

Ironically, the current incarnation of the Graham Cracker couldn’t be further from his ideal, made with refined flour, sugar and- to really stick the nail in the coffin- cinnamon (a dreaded spice!). Graham would turn in his grave if he knew that his insipid crackers are now prevalently used as a receptacle for decadent offerings; they are the main ingredient in cheesecake bases, pie crusts and of course s’mores. I can’t even imagine how incensed he’d be at the increasingly degenerate recipes the internet is inciting, the crowning glory of which has to be Bourbon Marshmallow S’mores with Bacon

Bourbon Marshmallow S’mores with Bacon recipe from how sweet it is

You can find more information about Grahamism, including a full run of the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity, in our newly-released Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900. Full access restricted to academic institutions who have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Hannah Davison

I've been part of the Editorial Development team at Adam Matthew since April 2014. I have enjoyed travelling to archives and conferences in the US and Europe to research new project ideas. My background is in art history, anthropology and museums.