Cornflake Crusade

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At one of the first American “health resorts” in upstate New York, shortly before the Civil War, a bilious health seeker named Albert Wheeler munched his Graham cracker and committed his thoughts to paper:

“Everyone,” he wrote, “is jostling his neighbor and his mouth is filled with pork, rum and tobacco.”

A Massachusetts man, Wheeler had seen what a breakfast of pork and beans and pie could do to the parishioners of the Congregational Church on a hot summer Sunday morning. The effects were so stupefying that the minister preached, in effect, to tons and tons of pork and beans. Wheeler knew well the salt fish diet, too, and had seen countless little girls hand up a “store order” to the clerk: “Please send by the bairer six pounds of codfish.” He knew the molasses, flour, and condiments, the ginger and the bags of black pepper that went into the salt-box houses of eastern Massachusetts—and the nostrums that followed to repair the damage.

Mr. Wheeler, who is known to history only for his diatribe against the eating habits of his time, was one of a very few voices then crying in the gastronomic wilderness. Perhaps the loudest was that of Sylvester Graham, who opposed pork, tobacco, salt, hot mince pie, tight corsets, and feather beds (conducive to unchastity), and whose name lives on in Graham bread and Graham crackers. It was the very dawn time of food reform, and the nation stood in dire need.

In The Chainbearer James Fenimore Cooper has a frontier housewife say: “I hold a family to be in a desperate way when the mother can see the bottom of the pork barrel.” The reliance upon pork was even more complete, if that was possible, in the western country. A York state man wrote back home from Camp Point, Illinois, “The living in this western country is not at all to my liking. Everything tastes and smells of ‘hog’s grease.’ … It is no wonder that the West yields a golden harvest to the Doctors.” Westerners dined on coffee, hog, and hominy three times a day, the editor of the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity observed; they kneaded their corn bread with grease and eggs. As a consequence, “bilious complaints are now all the fashion at the ‘Great West.’ ”

Horace Greeley had an intimate knowledge of the bill of fare in the Far West, for he made the journey overland from New York to San Francisco in 1859 and boarded for a while in Denver. The staples were bread, bacon, and beans, one meal like another. But the times, he said, were improving. The hen population within five hundred miles of Denver, formerly four or five, had recently risen to twelve or fifteen, and egg prices were falling.

To James Parton, the trans-Mississippi country was an uncivilized wilderness. Leading biographer of his generation with his popular lives of Franklin, Jefferson, Greeley, and others, and a bit of a reformer him-self in matters of smoking, drinking, and eating, Parton wrote that travelers who headed west from St. Louis would “strike a region where the principal articles of diet are saleratus and grease, to which a little flour and pork are added.” The mixture would not sustain the natives, he said, except that they carefully “preserve” their tissues in whisky.

From prehistory down to the colonization of America, man was principally interested not in choosing foods which contained the essential nutrients, or even the foods he particularly liked, but in getting enough of something to eat. The Scotch who flowed into Philadelphia, the Irish “b’hoys” who built the canals and railroads, and all the immigrant arrivals representing other national strains, joined with the resident American farmer in the ingestion of a God’s plenty of food, eating, for the first time, above a ton of foodstuffs per person per year, with heavy emphasis upon meats. It was the hunger approach to diet.

A cheap, abundant food supply and a robust habit of life sent our ancestors off on a gigantic gastronomic binge which knew no limits until modern urban living modified the prevailing idea of what constituted three square meals. In our rugged democracy all classes could for the first time acquire the palpitations, nightmares, obesity, and eructations formerly the exclusive perquisites of the higher orders of society. Those who could afford it took the waters at Saratoga or Ballston Spa or turned to a convalescent home for a discipline of compulsory fasting and internal bathing. Those with limited funds could try the extract of colocynth and aloes, or dine penitently when in extremis on oatmeal gruel.

“The ordinary mode of eating,” said Mrs. Trollope, “is abundant, but not delicate.” “How do you do?” was not a conventional greeting but an anxious inquiry.

In professors’ and ministers’ families, far removed from the world of fashion, midday dinner consisted of two meats, gravies, pickles, vegetables, condiments, cheese, bread and butter. Then the diners polished off a pudding or pie, with perhaps fruit to fill in the chinks.