Graham crackers and corn flakes: two staples of every American pantry. Chances are you’ve enjoyed a bowl of cornflakes for breakfast or snacked on a s’more by the side of a campfire. But did you know that both of these foods trace their roots back to the 1800s and two men’s obsession with clean living?
Sylvester Graham was born in 1794, the son of a Connecticut pastor. He became an Evangelical minister himself, and lectured widely on the evils of the American diet. According to Graham, meat, alcohol and fatty foods led to gluttony, lust and materialistic urges. The all-American meat and potatoes diet, in other words, was quickly turning America into a nation of drunk, sex-crazed maniacs. His devoted followers, called “Grahamites,” followed their charismatic leader on a restricted diet of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
Grahamites were especially cautioned to stay away from white breads and flours. Graham espoused (correctly, as it turned out) that many beneficial nutrients were lost in the quest for whiter, lighter bread. Though white breads were a status symbol at the time (only the poor ate brown, whole-grained breads), Grahamites consumed bread made from unsifted, unbleached, wheat berry flour. The crackers baked from this flour were called, of course, graham crackers, although what the Grahamites ate bore little resemblance to the modern day version. While the original Graham flours and breads were said to be quite tasty, they were made with little to no added sweeteners. And Sylvester Graham certainly wouldn’t have been a fan of the mass-produced nature of the majority of graham crackers on the market today.
John Harvey Kellogg was born 50 years after Graham, but he considered himself a Grahamite through and through. Kellogg wasn’t a preacher, but a medical doctor, running the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan for many years. The sanitarium featured treatments based on water therapy, vegetarianism and enemas to cure ailments from fatigue to alcoholism and soon became a sort health resort for the upper classes, attracting such luminaries as Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth and Henry Ford.
Kellogg believed in the same vegetable-centric, whole grain diet as Graham had, but the cereal that would make Kellogg famous came about by accident. While working on recipes for a healthy alternative to bread, Kellogg’s brother, Will Keith, left a batch of boiled wheat sitting out in the sanitarium’s kitchen, causing the wheat to go stale. With money tight, the Kellogg brothers couldn’t afford to just throw away perfectly good food. So they put the wheat through a dough roller, hoping to get thin sheets of compressed wheat—but got flakes instead.
To their surprise, the sanitarium’s patients enjoyed the flaked cereal, and the brothers continued to experiment with a variety of corn and rice cereals, receiving their first patents in 1896. But the brothers soon parted ways: Will Keith wanted to add sugar to the cereals to appeal to a broader mass market. John Harvey wouldn’t hear of it. So Will branched out on his own to create the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, which later became the multinational corporation we know today as Kellogg’s.