Foodie Fundamentalism: What Graham Crackers Can Teach Us About the Food Movement

The food movement’s holier than thou attitude may seem new, but foodism’s religious roots date back to a 19th century health reform movement.

| November/December 2012

  • Smore Sandwich
    It is perhaps a fitting irony that today Graham’s name is best known for its association with Graham Crackers—the key ingredient, alongside sugary marshmallows and chocolate, in that beloved campfire treat, a s’more.
    Photo By Flickr/Yurilong

  • Smore Sandwich

Leaving the farmers’ market every Saturday, I am filled with self-satisfaction. Not only have I managed to accomplish some food shopping (a tricky feat for busy people), but I also imagine that I have participated in the political project of “the food movement.” In this fantasy, the First Lady, Michael Pollan, and Mark Bittman regard me with approval. This zeal fades quickly as the fruit flies come to feast on the tomatoes that I never seem to eat fast enough, and as I cave after a long day and dig into an ice-cream bar made with unpronounceable ingredients. Guilt soon sets in. Again, I have failed to live up to the high standards of today’s food reformers, where we eat simply, locally, and organically. All the time.

Of course, not all food reformers are calling for the same thing. As Pollan has pointed out, the food movement is “a big, lumpy tent.” There are hosts of activists: among them the foodies (who enjoy eating’s aesthetic values); the sustainability advocates (who monitor animal welfare and agriculture’s impact on ecosystems); and the health reformers (who raise awareness about obesity and inner-city food deserts). Since their resurgence in the 1970s, these diverse factions have conspired toward a common goal: telling us how to eat better, and making us feel worse when we don’t.

It’s a noble and needed cause, but like any crusade, it can get a little preachy. Writing in The Atlantic last year, B.R. Myers lamented foodism’s faux piety, one where “to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself,” all while assembling special dinner parties with overpriced ingredients, meant to model morality for the masses. I tend to agree; while Myers’ beef is with the foodies in particular, there is something “holier than thou” about the entire food movement. But on one historical point, Myers gets it wrong. He posits that foodism’s self-righteousness is a newfound affectation. “For the first time in the history of their community,” he writes, gourmets are left “feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street.” In fact, the American food movement has a long, sanctimonious history—and one with surprisingly religious roots.

Reverend Sylvester Graham and the Food Movement

If we trace the lineage of the food movement, the grandfather of health food would be the Reverend Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister from Connecticut, whose “Graham Diet” was first codified in his Treatise on Bread and Bread-making in 1837. Graham was among the 19th century reformers who hoped for a nation devoid of all sorts of immorality, from slavery and alcohol to lesser vices like white flour and sugar. Abolitionists and health reformers alike found the key to national reform in religion. The personal decision to follow Jesus Christ—and give up one’s vices—was the starting point to persuade fellow citizens to join the cause.

Although he was an ordained minister, Graham never had his own congregation. Instead, he earned his income and notoriety on the temperance lecture circuit during the 1820s, where he argued alcohol was not merely immoral but unwholesome, part of an unhealthy class of substances called “stimulants” that wreaked havoc on the body. In a bold theological move, he believed alcohol, coffee, tea, sugar, meat, and refined grains were all unhealthy because of their distance from the “organic vitality” of nature. (Today we might hear the same argument about processed foods.) Graham prohibited eating meat, not because animals were sacred beings or should be treated humanely, but because meat was a “stimulant” and overtaxed the body. While vegetables, water, and whole grains gave people more “life,” stimulants—born of the new industrial mode of food production—leeched people’s vitality, making them ill and sinful. Sex also happened to diminish one’s energy, according to the Reverend, who maintained a lifelong crusade against masturbation.

Graham had his critics; as a Boston paper described him: “A greater humbug or a more disgusting writer never lived.” And Graham could be equally caustic in his criticisms of those who fell short of his high standards. Frustrated with a woman who thought drinking tea relieved her headaches—which Graham believed actually exacerbated the problem—he expounded in a letter: “[W]hat are her feeling and experience worth … to the laws of life and health? I answer, not a farthing! Nay, indeed! They are worse than nothing!”

Donato Cianci
8/5/2013 2:20:26 PM

Thanks John Downie for your complete answer! If Veganism ever became a fad for whatever reason, it would be the first time humans did anything unreservedly good for other life on this planet... And incidently, the writer's sloppy grandstanding verbosity well illustrates why we ought not waste precious education resources on more phd's....Donato Cianci

11/17/2012 9:35:28 PM

You said it well john downes!

john downes
11/17/2012 1:46:40 AM

This piece is just an academic exercise and repeats a well-hackneyed line peddled by those seeking academic traction. It does not tell us anything new but seeks to somehow discredit the idea of wholesome food, just to play with words. It is also incorrect historically, because if one seeks to examine the roots of "foodism" it was well expressed by the Jains in bce India, and by the original hippies in classical Greece. It is also expressed with proto-scientific underpinning in the ayur-veda, and in the dietetics of TCM. Who cares if the roots of the food movement are quasi-religious?...and to then make this "holier than thou" simply reflects the consciousness of the writer, expressing her own religiously founded "guilt" in eating junk food. She has bought into the guilt, it does not inherently exist in the notion of wholesome food.the negativity of the piece is weakening to a notion well founded in nutritional research as well...that junk food rots you from the inside and simply lines the pockets of unscrupulous the face of the deformity of obesity which is all around for all to doesnt need academic credentials...dont need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows!!! If the notion of food fundamentalism is seeded in a quasi-religious background, isnt that preferable to the denial of health seeded in exploitative capitalism? Why denegrate an idealist simply because he appeared to be a religious we apply the same denegration to other religious figures who preach love and peace in the face of war, murder and mayhem?? And why trot our Pollan as a "first lady" oh so cynically? when he himself, as she says, acknowledges the mixed bag of foodies? I cant see any redeeming(pun intended) feature in this piece, it is a negative, spurious academic people used to say...loves the sound of her own voice! well people..for whatever reason!

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