Cornflake Crusade

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A ceremonial dinner party in Boston society of the 1850’s was ideally designed to bring on bilious spells and the lackluster eye. There was a formal affair at William Appleton’s, for example, served “by three blacks and our two servants.” It consisted first of “cold oysters, Oyster Pâtés , Hock wine offered; boiled and baked Fish, Pass the wine; next, boiled Turkey, roast Mutton, Veal with Peas and Ham; Sweet Bread and Croquettes; then Wine and Roman Punch. After Course, two pair Canvas-Back Ducks, two pair Grouse, Wood Cocks and Quails, with Salad:—Blanc Mange, Jelly, Baked and Frozen Pudding, etc., etc., with Ice Cream, Grapes, Pears, Apples, Oranges & Ornamental Sweets from the Confectioner.” If any good thing was said later in the Appleton drawing room, it is doubtful if it was heard by the liverish company who had far more need of Huxham’s tincture, of quassia or a mechanical manipulation of the epigastrium, than of an epigram.

To the easy availability of U.S. foodstuffs was added another peril: poor preparation. The campfire, the cabin, the exigencies of the scout and trapper, produced a national taste for frying-pan cookery. The hunter, the squatter hoeing his corn patch, the farmer, each enjoyed a squirrel broth as much as the next fellow. But each, day in and day out, depended upon thick pieces of salt pork as his breakfast staple. Hunks of white side meat were boiled for noon dinner. Supper saw the pork served again with a white flour gravy and molasses as a sop for corn bread and biscuit. On this monotonous dietary the rural American managed to conquer a continent and produce a posterity to inherit it.

Around Civil War times a lecturer upon food and cookery appeared from France, M. Pierre Blot, who tried to elevate the American cuisine. Blot got a stony reception. A few in the small, rarefied world of the bon ton imitated the French with their ices and ice creams, their green vegetables, sauces and salads. But the citizenry refused to surrender their skillets, spider bread, and dried apple pie for frenchified fruits, pot herbs, and foreign sauces.

Wolfing down the meal has a long history in North America. In stagecoach days, when the tavern keeper rang the dinner bell, the customers rushed from the washing pump to long tables, just as they later learned to slide on and off the stool of a railroad café in ten or fifteen minutes. The rule at an American inn was: eat all you want. Price: 25 cents, whisky 5 cents extra. The pattern was “gobble, gulp, and go.” These deficiencies in diet, these graceless manners, had almost as disastrous an effect upon the nation’s teeth as upon its stomach. They did, at least, stimulate American eminence in the field of dentistry and provide unusual opportunities for an interesting practice.

A visitor to Chicago when it was an “upstart village” found there the “usual American celerity in eating and drinking … no ceremony whatever observed; every man for himself.” Were these the manners only of the untamed West? Thomas Hamilton, English visitor and novelist, describes a breakfast table scene at Niblo’s Hotel in New York:

“Here was no loitering nor lounging … no intervals of repose in mastication; but all was hurry, bustle, clamor and voracity, and the business of repletion went forward with a rapidity unexampled.” Diners ate and departed abruptly. “The appearance of the table under such circumstances, was by no means gracious either to the eye or the fancy. It was strewn thickly with the disjecta membra of the entertainment.”

The food of the city man in modest circumstances was not greatly different in character from that of the farmer, though it might be staler. The $600 clerk employed by a New York wholesaler when Pearl Street was the country’s great jobbing center, ate at a fourdollar boarding house where the lady of the establishment got her living by stinting. The mechanic or artisan lived on cabbage and salt pork, turnips and beets. The source of cholera and many other ills had not been identified; but there was a dim awareness that people ate and drank unwisely, that those who moved from farms to live in cities could not with impunity eat the same fare they were accustomed to.

A man of consequence in his business or profession faced a special hazard to his health: the established barbarisms of a public dinner. Parton recalled with distaste an affair in New York where he saw “a half acre of doctors” gorging themselves upon indigestible foods in indigestible quantities. And he mentions one dinner where the guests were five hours at table.

Ten courses were required to celebrate properly the opening of a small New England railway. It took twenty-three meats, twenty-four vegetable items, four kinds of pickles, four breads, five condiments in the castors, an even dozen of pies, tarts, cakes, and puddings, and ten liquors for the citizens of Chillicothe, Ohio, to extend a proper gastronomic welcome to Governor De Witt Clinton of New York when he visited their city.

The Battle Creek “health foods,” when their hour struck, had a whole continent to reform.

Battle Creek, Michigan, got its special flavor from the religious-health-medical doctrine of the Seventh-day Adventists. For fifty years Battle Creek was the world headquarters, the modern Jerusalem, of this aggressive, dedicated, fundamentalist society of the faithful, who observed their Sabbath on Saturday. Devout believers in the Second Coming, convinced vegetarians, the Adventists followed Genesis literally where it says, “Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed—to you it shall be for meat.”